FRANCE. Jane Marshall reports that lack of tenure is leading staff to take extreme measures.
Supply teachers in France are resorting to hunger strikes in an effort to improve their precarious working conditions.
This week, three Paris supply teachers - maitres auxiliaires (MAs) explained why they have started fasting, along with colleagues in Toulouse, Rennes and Tours. They are part of a campaign to obtain guarantees for all MAs and an end to the job uncertainty they experience. Unions estimate the number of supply teachers without work at about 10,000.
The protesters stopped taking food last week, after a second meeting between education minister Francois Bayrou and representatives of the Collectif des Non-Titulaires, a collective working on their behalf, and an inter-union support group. The minister had been prompted to open discussions by a 21-day fast in December by four teachers in Toulouse, who were later joined by four others.
The minister proposed a timetable for talks, concerning a new law governing employment of temporary workers in the public sector including supply teachers; measures to improve re-employment opportunities; and whether supplementary school hours covered by supply teachers could be transformed into permanent teaching posts. The minister also asked each education authority to investigate its local situation.
But the MAs' representatives claim that M Bayrou has introduced points for negotiation different from those originally proposed, some of which would make the position of MAs even worse. As a result, the three teachers in Paris, plus three in Toulouse, two in Rennes and one in Tours, have started the new hunger strikes.
Teacher unions stress that they do not approve the life-threatening action, but the FSU (Federation Syndicale Unitaire) is helping the individuals who are taking part. A demonstration supporting rights for the MAs was called in Paris for this week.
Out of 30,000 supply teachers in France, about a third are without work this school year because of budget restrictions. Particularly vulnerable are the 4,000 or so teachers from outside the European Union, many of whom risk losing their right to stay in France if they are not re-employed.
* Students' and teachers' representatives and unions are treating with distrust an employers' plan which would offer students work experience as part of their education and entitle them to a qualification.
Student unions have criticised the plan, proposed by the CNPF (Conseil National du Patronat Francais), France's equivalent to the Confederation of British Industry, as too reminiscent of the CIP (Contrat d'insertion professionnelle), which the government of Edouard Balladur attempted to introduce in 1993, but which had to be abandoned after widespread student protests that it would be exploitative because it would have paid less than the minimum wage.
The CNPF's stage diplomant initiative proposes paying up to 100,000 students between 1,500 francs and 1,700 francs (Pounds 170-Pounds 190) a month for taking part in a nine-month course in the workplace. A jury composed of representatives from the ministry of education and of employers would be responsible for assessing and awarding certificates to participating students.
The scheme has the support of President Chirac, who has proclaimed 1997 as Youth Employment Year.
However, M Bayrou, who was also education minister during the CIP fiasco, has learned from the past and he told journalists this month that he had "no intention of making the same mistakes again, or repeating the misunderstandings of the CIP". He had decided to take all necessary precautions to prevent misinterpretation of an initiative that was generous and fair in its inspiration.
* The Paris education authority has ordered an urgent inquiry after a teacher allegedly set an exercise comparing the fertility rates of the French with "foreigners, including Algerians". According to the communist newspaper L'Humanite, the teacher at the Lycee La Fontaine in Paris also asked her pupils to "describe the consequences if this situation was maintained".