Their grievances include conditions of employment, loss of jobs and budget restrictions which are affecting all public spending as the government tries to achieve the conditions necessary for joining a European single currency.
But an apparently unruffled education minister Francois Bayrou launched his programme for his fourth school year, calling on parents and society to give greater support and more respect to teachers, and highlighting plans to counter violence in schools, adjust the school timetable and continue reforming the curriculum.
His sheaf of statistics revealed that a total of 12,762,000 pupils - 60, 000 fewer than last year - started the year at 72,300 public and church schools from nursery to post-baccalaureat level, where they were received by 1, 304,000 staff, including 827,000 teachers.
In primary school a rolling reform is bringing in a lighter curriculum, centred on basics and emphasising written and oral French; and pupils will be taught methods of work designed to help them learn how to learn and study independently. A daily session introducing some seven-year-olds to a foreign language, started last year (TES, August 30), is to be extended, and a pilot scheme affecting 8,400 pupils will aim to give new impetus to science.
Trials to find a more child-friendly school timetable will continue with 170 communes volunteering to take part in an initiative which devotes three afternoons a week to artistic activities and sport.
After two years of experimentation, the first year of college (lower secondary) has officially become a "cycle of adaptation" to help pupils in their transition to secondary education. Features include working in small groups, individual help for pupils in difficulty, and supervised study periods. A reorganised curriculum stresses French and civics, and all pupils in their second (rather than third) college year will be offered optional Latin.
The initiative to reduce violence, which concerns colleges and lycees, was announced last spring, following a series of unusually violent incidents in a number of schools. The 19 measures now coming into force include tighter controls on access to establishments, making unauthorised entry an offence, reinforcing co-operation between schools and police and the introduction in teacher training institutes of a course on teaching in sensitive schools.
But interrupting the minister's intricate plans were loud complaints from the teaching unions which have been building up since last school year.
The two federations, FEN and the more left-wing FSU, which have been rivals since a split in 1993, have united against deteriorating working conditions, increasing job insecurity and the axing of 5,000 posts in schools. They say the government is trying to buy peace in higher education by providing 2,700 more teachers, while robbing the schools' budget to do so.
In reply to M Bayrou's assertion that primary and college class sizes are stable, or falling, thanks to demographic changes, they say the opportunity should be seized to improve matters further. The unions have organised a day's strike for September 30, following two days of action planned during the month. Meanwhile, several nursery and primary schools in parts of the country failed to open at the start of term because of protests and occupations by parents and teachers against overcrowding, class closures or the loss of posts.