Many schools were closed for a day and tens of thousands of teachers, parents, students and schoolchildren took to the streets last week in the first strike for 15 years to hit the education system from nursery to university.
An estimated 90,000 demonstrators across the country protested against the educational policies of the government of prime minister Edouard Balladur, at present the favourite to win April's presidential elections.
According to main organisers, the union grouping FSU (Federation Syndicat Unitaire de l'enseignement), more than one teacher in two went on strike, with up to 80 per cent in some places. However, the education ministry put the figure at about 30 per cent.
Different sectors were striking over different issues, but they were united in defence of public education and against insufficient resources.
At primary level, which includes nursery schooling, a major grievance concerned the 260,000 teachers who have still to be fully upgraded to the status of professeurs des ecoles. Under the recently recognised teacher-training system primary trainees now take a university-level course, equal in value to the secondary teaching degree, and existing teachers are retrained. But anomalies during the change-over to the new system have led to teachers doing the same job being paid different salaries, and qualifying for four different pension entitlements.
The primary teachers' union, the SNI-UPP, was demanding more teaching posts to keep down the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom, and to reduce class sizes. Problems in the colleges and lycees - lower and upper secondaries - focused on the failure of education minister Francois Bayrou to provide enough money and teachers for reforms to be introduced next September.
Demands for higher education, which have wide support from university heads as well as staff and student organisations, concerned not only budget and staff cuts, but also restructuring plans at the CNRS, the state-run national council for scientific research.
There was also anger over proposals for reorganisation of higher education which would devolve some functions to the regions and put greater emphasis on professional and vocational training (TES, February 3).
Higher education minister Francois Fillon, has said no changes will be made before the presidential election.
The demonstration resulted in success for university institute of technology (equivalent to polytechnics) students. M Balladur agreed to withdraw a circular which protesters claimed would limit UIT graduates' transfers to university.
This was the third time he has climbed down after protests. In January, he abandoned plans for more funds for church schools, and last March he cancelled an unpopular youth scheme.
His opponents in the forthcoming presidential election are taunting him for taking "one step forwards, two steps back". Last week's action coincided with air, rail and postal workers' strikes.