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Teachers notch up 10th strike

FRANCE

Unions fear devolution reform will lead to inequality, reports Jane Marshall.

PRIME minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has failed to pacify teachers who intensified their protests this week with their 10th nationwide strike since September.

The education ministry said that between a quarter and half of teachers and other staff answered Tuesday's strike call.

The unions, representing teachers and education employees, are taking a lead in widespread industrial action by public-service workers against reforms that will require them to work more years for lower pensions.

But their main grievance is the conservative government's plans to devolve some national educational responsibilities to local authorities, notably the recruitment of 110,000 non-teaching staff.

Unions oppose what they see as the first step in a break-up of the notoriously centralised national system. They fear that some authorities will cut posts to save money, creating regional inequalities.

Other contentious issues include national budget cuts and job losses, which include thousands of educational assistants' posts.

Since September, hundreds of thousands of teachers have taken part in a series of strikes and demonstrations across the country.

Now there are fears that if the dispute is not resolved soon, the baccalaureat exams, due to start on June 12, might have to be postponed.

This would affect more than 600,000 candidates. Embattled education minister Luc Ferry last week promised "the greatest firmness" in response to any disruption, and all the unions have called on members not to boycott the exams.

The prime minister intervened with a promise that "education is national and will remain so" following the failure of Mr Ferry to halt the protests.

After a meeting of 20 ministers last week to discuss the crisis, Mr Raffarin set up three working groups - on careers, decentralisation and the future of education - involving the ministers of the interior and the civil service.

But by Tuesday unions did not consider that the government had done enough for a settlement.

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