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Protests at reforms that sense a deja vu

The French take teacher action to a different level, writes Jane Marshall

The French take teacher action to a different level, writes Jane Marshall

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, as they say here: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Fitting it should be a French saying, as that is how the education system usually operates.

Education is the most politically sensitive and potentially explosive sector in France. It receives by far the highest share of the national budget, and has the biggest public workforce; teachers are classified as civil servants, and there are more than 1 million of them in state schools. And if they do not like the way the minister is handling their system, they are quick to take action.

Over generations a pattern has established itself which goes something like this: a new education minister arrives determined to leave his mark. (They've all been men so far as schools are concerned, although the present minister for higher education and research is Madame Valerie Pecresse.) A commission is appointed, an inquiry launched, recommendations presented and finally a reform announced. But if it is not to the liking of those at the chalkface, an alliance of teachers, parents and sometimes pupils says Non. The unions then mobilise their supporters and take to the streets across the nation, for strikes and days of protest - and further negotiation.

And it has usually worked; reforms are withdrawn or modified, and, depending on the gravity of the protest and the loss of face incurred, the minister might be replaced.

But is this tradition threatened by the arrival of the mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy who became president in 2007 determined to transform France into a more efficient, competitive nation and to bring the public sector to heel? He and Pecresse have already given universities more autonomy - the first 20 institutions adopted their new powers in January. Mission largely completed - but for the continuing nationwide lecturers' strike over revised conditions of employment.

Xavier Darcos, the education minister, used to be a schools inspector and knows the system from the inside. He has reforms he is determined to push through.

So the teachers are angry - and not only because of the financial crisis which provoked a national public sector strike last month.

Their fury was aroused a year ago, when the government said it was to abolish 11,200 teacher posts from last September. It intensified with the announcement of a further 13,500 jobs to be cut from next school year.

Teacher protest then turned to Darcos's reforms. The first concerned primary education, including "reactionary" new programmes and the introduction of catch-up classes for pupils during the holidays and two hours remedial teaching a week. Teachers were also infuriated by a new law obliging primary schools to provide a "minimum service" to supervise pupils during strikes which, they objected, infringed their constitutional rights.

Another major cause of dissent is reform of the lycee (upper secondary). Pupils occupied their schools and took to the streets. The protests were so widespread and intense that Sarkozy postponed the reforms to give more time to explain why change was necessary. Unconvinced, the pupils have continued demonstrating, and SNES, the majority secondary teachers' union, has refused negotiations unless the most contentious measures are withdrawn.

Maybe things are indeed changing more than before - but then again, maybe they are not.

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