French schools hit by strikes and protests

Schools across France will be hit by strike action this week as staff protest at changes to the school timetable. The walk-outs are the latest show of dissent against an unpopular reform by France's Socialist government.

French schools hit by strikes and protests
Teachers protest in France against a controversial reformto the primary school week. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Another flagship reform by France’s ruling socialists is set to provoke unrest this week, with schools being the latest battleground for a show of dissent against the government of President François Hollande.

Staff at schools across the country are to take industrial action over the next three days in a show of opposition against Education Minister Vincent Peillon’s reform of the primary school week.

Peillon angered many in the teaching profession earlier this year by proposing to extend the school timetable by half a day each week from September 2013. The reform meant France’s primary schools would no longer close on Wednesdays with children attending classes for extra-curricular activities. In return the length of the full teaching day was slightly shortened.

However teachers protested that the extra half day will simply add to their already overburdened workload and is being rushed through before members of staff can be recruited.

Although the reform was due to come into force last September, many regions in France decided to delay its implementation until September 2014.

Despite the reform being passed by parliament many school staff and local authorities are still not happy.

On Tuesday staff at Paris primary schools who teach extra-curricular activities, called “animateurs” were called to strike by their unions, who are demanding the “appropriate means” for them to do their jobs. Around 520 schools were affected by the walk-out.

On Thursday it will be the turn of teachers to take action, when schools will either be forced to close or take measures to make up for staff shortages. Unions expect 150 schools to remain shut.

France’s largest teaching union SNUipp-FSU wants the reform to be dropped and round table talks to take place immediately to try to resolve the dispute.

Parents groups are also protesting against the reforms and have issued calls through social media that mums and dads keep their children out of school on Wednesday and block the entrance to institutions.

But not all parents agree with the action.

Tim Clark, from the Alpes Maritimes department, who has two children at a local primary school told The Local: "The reaction to this week's call to action in our local area has been one of frustration. The school is wanting parents to actually 'boycott' school tomorrow and then the teachers are on strike on Thursday. We have read that studies have been carried out to prove that five shorter days is far more beneficial to children's well being and the long day currently experienced by my 3 year old is hard work for her."

Local authorities are also rebelling against Peillon, with around 50 right-wing mayors saying they will refuse to implement the reform in September 2014.

The mayors claim the “financial impact” of the changes in timetables will not be manageable, according to a report in Le Figaro.

In a bid to calm protests the government released a report that claimed there have been no major issues in 93.5 percent of the communes where the reform has already been introduced.

“There are still problems,” conceded Peillon, "but these figures go against the idea being put forward that there has been a disaster."

Discontent over Peillon’s reform has rumbled on for months, with the minister failing to convince many in the profession that the changes are necessary.

After similar industrial action in February Peillon argued that changes would benefit children’s education.

“We need to inform the French people that one week of 4.5 days is better for learning than 4 days of more than five hours of classes,” the education minister told Le Parisien at the time. “It will allow children to undertake more sporting and cultural activities.

“We cannot continue to be the only country in the world where our students attend school only 144 days a year,” Peillon added.

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Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules

Around three-quarters of French teachers plan to go on strike onThursday to protest the government's shifting rules on Covid testing for students, forcing the closure of half the country's primary schools, a union said Tuesday.

Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules
Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

The strike led by the Snuipp-FSU union, the largest among primary school teachers, comes after the latest of several changes on testing and isolation requirements for potential Covid cases announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late Monday.

After seeing long lines of parents outside pharmacies and labs in recent days to test children in classes where a case was detected, Castex said home tests could now be used to determine if a student could return to school.

But teachers say class disruptions have become unmanageable with the spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

“Students cannot learn properly because attendance varies wildly, and a hybrid of in-house and distance learning is impossible to put in place,” the Snuipp-FSU said, adding that absent teachers are not being replaced.

It is also demanding the government provide facemasks for staff, including the more protective FFP2 masks, and CO2 monitors to check if classrooms are sufficiently ventilated.

“Not only does the current protocol not protect students, staff or their families, it has completely disorganised schools,” the union said, claiming that classes have effectively been turned into “daycare centres.”

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has said the government is doing everything possible to avoid outright school closures that could cause havoc for parents and jeopardise learning for thousands, especially those in low-income families.

“I know there is a lot of fatigue, of anxiety… but you don’t go on strike against a virus,” Blanquer told BFM television on Tuesday.

As of Monday some 10,000 classes had been shut nationwide because of Covid cases, representing around two percent of all primary school classes, Blanquer said.