By Ingrid Melander and Sophie Louet
Thousands of teachers went on strike across France on Tuesday to protest against new measures aimed at revamping the country’s creaking school system, but President Francois Hollande vowed to push ahead with the reform despite widespread resistance.
Education is a sensitive area for his already unpopular government. France’s 840,000 teachers have traditionally been a bastion of support for Hollande, but the proposed reform has turned many against him and his ruling Socialists.
Billed as countering elitism and ensuring fairer use of teaching resources, the reform has faced criticism from trade unions, the conservative opposition, sections of the left and even Germany, which fears German-language teaching will suffer.
“There will be a reform, and it will be one that allows everyone to succeed,” Hollande, in Berlin for talks on climate change, told a joint news conference with Angela Merkel. He assured her that German was a priority in French schools.
As teachers gathered for marches in Paris and other cities, the Education Ministry released figures showing that around one in four teachers in lower secondary (“college”) schools affected by the reform had joined the strike.
The SNES-FSU union put strike turnout at over 50 percent of all secondary school teachers.
The plan, labelled a “shipwreck for France” by one conservative deputy, is to give schools more leeway on what they teach, promote inter-disciplinary learning and counter elitism.
Critics argue it will increase competition between schools and so exacerbate inequalities. Others fear a shift of resources away from German, Latin and Greek – currently the choice of a minority of the most gifted pupils – that will drag down overall standards.
Parents and pupils also joined the marches.
“I voted for Hollande in 2012 but I regret it enormously – never again,” Rose Hui, a 45-year-old mother of three high school children told Reuters at the start of the Paris march.
Opinion polls show that while one in two teachers backed Hollande in the first round of the 2012 election, he is losing support and many are tempted by the far-right National Front.
Critics have rounded on 37-year-old Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan-born daughter of working class parents and a rising star in the government who is often hailed as a success story for French integration efforts.
Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, now head of the opposition UMP, said she was an icon of what he called the government’s “unrelenting quest for mediocrity.”
Vallaud-Belkacem hit back, calling some of her critics “pseudo-intellectuals”.
An Odoxa opinion poll last week showed that over 60 percent of French people oppose the reform and think it will harm pupils’ performance rather than improve it.
“People are often very wary of reform in France, there is a real fear of reform,” said Eric Charbonnier, education policy analyst at the OECD think tank group, one of the rare voices saying that the measures proposed, including more tutoring for pupils, go in the right direction.
FEW DOUBT NEED FOR REFORM
Hollande has struggled to get reforms implemented intact in areas including taxation and labour rules, but he has managed to push some economic deregulation through parliament as well as a 2013 law permitting same-sex marriages.
Few in France dispute the school system needs reforming. OECD studies have shown that 15-year-old pupils’ level in mathematics dropped between 2003 and 2012, for example.
Despite its egalitarian goals, France is the country where pupils’ performance is most closely linked with their parents’ socio-economic background and where children of immigrant descent are most likely to fail, a 2012 OECD study showed.