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Thousands strike over job losses

France. Classes were disrupted and schools closed throughout France last Monday as hundreds of thousands of teachers staged a day's strike against working conditions and swingeing job cuts.

The protest came a week after education minister Francois Bayrou presented his spending plans for next year, which entail the loss of more than 5,000 posts.

Although education is one of the few areas of public spending in the austere national budget which has not been cut to below the level of 1996, schools have lost out with priority going to higher education. Altogether, the education budget rose from 317.7 billion francs (Pounds 41.2 bn) in 1996 to 324.2 bn frs, up by just more than 2 per cent and narrowly outpacing the inflation rate of 1.5 per cent. However, the 2,700 posts which have been created in the universities nowhere near balance the loss of 5,290 in primary and secondary schools.

Monday's strike had strongest support in primary schools. The Ministry of Education estimated that 59 per cent of the teaching force were absent while the unions said three-quarters obeyed the strike call.

Estimates of secondary participation ranged between 44 per cent and about 60 per cent, or more in some areas.

Bayrou has awarded the lion's share of new cash to higher education to pay for an emergency plan for poorer universities, adopted following student demonstrations which coincided with mass public-sector walk-outs, and for university reforms announced in June.

These include 2,700 new teaching, technical and administrative posts, and a "tutelage" system under which older students will be paid to look after freshmen.

But in the schools spending has been frozen for reforms announced two years ago in the New Contract for Schools programme. Bayrou cited the continuing fall in pupil numbers - there will be 59,000 fewer starting next September - to justify the drastic job cuts.

"Resources for teaching and supervision will remain unaffected," the minister said, adding that plans were still on course for fixing a maximum of 25 pupils in nursery classes in deprived areas. Extra posts have been created for school anti-violence measures.

Union representatives were unconvinced by Bayrou's assertion that "education continues to be the priority of priorities". The Federation Syndicale Unitaire accused the government of sacrificing the future of young people and employment.

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