Massive strike hits France

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Hundreds of thousands of teachers and civil servants walked off the job on Thursday in a one-day show of force against job cuts.

15 May 2008

PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy faced a new test of his resolve to streamline France's public sector as hundreds of thousands of teachers and civil servants walked off the job Thursday in a one-day show of force against job cuts.

Students, parents and teachers took to the streets across the country against plans to slash 22,900 civil servant jobs including 11,200 in education this September, and another 35,000 in 2009.

Some 60 percent of France's 740,000 teachers went on strike, according to union leaders, though the government put the figure lower at 39 percent in high schools and 46 percent in the primary sector.

In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, strike organisers said some 30,000 high-school students, teachers, parents and civil servants marched behind a banner reading "Stop breaking our public services." Police put the turnout lower at 7,000.

Clashes broke out on the edge of a march of 2,000 students in southeastern Grenoble, as youths hurled cans and bottles at riot police who responded with tear gas. Police blamed the trouble on a small group of anarchists.

Around 100 demonstrations were planned across France, with the main Paris rally to set off at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), marching south from the Place de la Republique.

High-school students have staged several months of occasionally violent protests against the education cuts, part of a wider drive to slash France's budget deficit, to be achieved by not replacing retiring personnel.

This time hospital workers, customs and tax officials and culture sector employees, were also set to strike in large numbers in defence of public sector jobs.

Government figures showed that 29 percent of the country's 2.5 million state employees were on strike, although no disruptions to air or rail transport were reported.

"This is not just one more demo, but the sign of a wider malaise that the government would be wrong to underestimate," Gerard Aschieri, head of the FSU union, told Les Echos business newspaper.

Sarkozy's government says the education cuts are justified by a fall in the number of high-school students, which dropped by 150,000 in three years.

Education Minister Xavier Darcos said Thursday that the government was "totally determined" to carry out the staff cuts and another minister accused the strikers of being "selfish".

"To march with banners saying 'I want more money' is a very selfish way of looking at things," charged Budget Minister Eric Woerth on iTele television.

But teachers, students and the left-wing opposition argue the measures will affect the quality of education and fear they presage deeper cuts in education spending.

Teachers' unions are also angry at top-down moves to reform the teaching curriculum.
The government will be rolling out a minimum service in thousands of schools - an experimental measure promised by Sarkozy before his election - with municipal workers stepping in to watch over schoolchildren, although unions and the left-wing opposition say the measure undermines the right to strike.

Mass protests by French students in 2006 - marked by several outbreaks of violence involving rioters from the Paris suburbs - forced a previous government to scrap plans for a flexible new youth job contract.

[AFP / Expatica]

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