Successful national strike held in state education

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Following earlier industrial action held in the south of France, five trade unions called a well-supported strike in the state education sector on 16 March 2000, enabling criticism of the reform policies and person of the Minister for Education, Claude Allègre, to be channelled into one movement. The Prime Minister responded with a number of concessions.

Five trade unions - CFDT, CGT, FSU and two affiliated federations to UNSA- called a nationwide strike in the state education sector on 16 March 2000. There was a high level of participation in the strike (60%-80%) and the various demonstrations attracted some 200,000 people. The Independent Democratic Federation of Lycée Pupils (Fédération indépendante et démocratique des lycéens, FIDL), the Federation of Pupils' Parent Councils (Fédération des conseils de parents d'élèves, FCPE), and two students' organisations - Independent and Democratic (Indépendante et démocratique, UNEF-ID) and Student Solidarity (Solidarité étudiante, UNEF-SE) - also took part in the demonstrations.

The strike movement started in two southern départementsin Languedoc-Roussillon and the original demands of the unions - the creation of more jobs from the Ministry of Education's budget and the replacement of insecure temporary employment by tenured jobs - were extended to cover other issues specific to various parts of the education sector. These included the annualisation of working time for teachers in technical colleges (lycées professionnels) and also the persistent discontent over the methods used to impose the current education reforms, particularly when they are not accompanied by extra funding to enable them to be applied.

In the wake of the serious industrial action in education in the Seine-Saint-Denis départementin 1999 (FR9903170N), the length of the Languedoc-Roussillon strike shows that discontent is not confined to disadvantaged urban areas. After the commitment to create 3,000 jobs over three years in Seine-Saint-Denis, the Ministry has now created nearly 500 education posts in the Gard and Hérault départements. However, there is no leeway left to respond to the extra needs identified in the operation known as the "annual education plan" (carte scolaire). The extension of the demands for extra jobs into rural areas has also highlighted the perceived lack of long-term planning and the demand for visible signs of life from the state in many towns and villages. In the wake of the recent restructuring plans for post offices (FR0002139N) and announcements of rationalisation of tax offices (FR0002142F), the issue of local and regional planning in France has now been well and truly raised.

The difficult working conditions in the technical colleges is unquestionably the basis for the rejection of the reform of the timetables of teachers employed in them. The change in working time arrangements which, according to the Ministry, follows from the technical colleges' new charter, was mainly negotiated by the National Union for Technical Education and Independent Apprenticeship (Syndicat national des enseignements techniques et de l'apprentissage autonome, SNETAA), the largest union in the technical college sector, and a member of FSU. The other unions however, opposed it. The change consisted in giving all teaching staff the same timetable: an average of 18 hours a week of basically teaching hours, in exchange for variation of between 15 and 23 hours a week, to take into account the pupils' obligatory absence for work experience as part of their programmes. This arrangement was rejected by many teachers, who monitor their students individually while they are on work experience, and who would be prevented by this new system from doing so in the future. SNETAA's support for the Ministry's policy has caused a crisis within the union. A new, and currently independent union, the National Vocational Education and Teaching Union (Syndicat national de l'éducation et de l'enseignement professionnels, SNEEP), has resulted from this crisis.

A speech by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on 16 March 2000 acknowledged the depth of discontent and hardening of attitudes toward the Minister of Education, Claude Allègre, on a personal level. The need to re-establish dialogue and rebuild confidence was affirmed. Moreover, by deciding to earmark FRF 1 billion to satisfy the demand for funding, and by proposing a system of talks to be held with the unions over a period of years on the issue of extra staffing levels, the Prime Minister implicitly opened the door to a change of tactics. Aware of the consequences of all this, Mr Allègre withdrew his planned introduction of flexibility into the timetables of teachers in technical colleges. While waiting for the precise details of the national negotiations on the medium-term funding plan, the unions behind the strike on 16 March (CGT, CFDT, FSU and UNSA) did not lift their further strike call for the end of March. Two other unions, SUD-Education and CGT-FO, are, independently of one another, advising local rank-and-file groups to adopt the strategy these unions feel will be most effective in mobilising teachers, ie a "general strike throughout the state education sector," until all the "Allègre charters" are withdrawn. Their agendas thus overlap with that of the National Union of Lycées and Collèges-National State Education Union (Syndicat national des lycées et collèges-Confédération syndicale de l'Education nationale, SNALC-CSEN) which is making no secret of its opposition, similar to that voiced by the right-wing parties in parliament, to the Jospin administration's approach to problem-solving.

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