It promises to be a summer of discontent in France, and on Thursday several entire public sectors went on strike, notably education workers.
It is the hottest potato of all, as teachers complain at the imposition of what they deem old-fashioned approaches in the hitherto highly-regarded primary stream, and job cuts, worsening teacher-pupil ratios.
This year’s budget envisages almost 23 thousand public sector redundancies, with more than 11 thousand in education.
A further 35 thousand jobs will go next year in the hope of saving half a billion euros. For every two public sector workers retiring, one will not be replaced. France has five million civil servants. They make up 22 percent of the workforce.
President Sarkozy is not springing this on an unsuspecting public. Last September he stressed this was an essential reform; “France is living beyond its means. We have 1200 billion euros of debt. Public salaries and pensions eat up 45 percent of the budget. If we replace all retirees we will never reduce this”.
But in the education sector, reducing manpower comes at a time of stable or increasing numbers of children. Teachers say this means bigger classes, or more overtime. One young secondary economics teacher has been campaigning for several weeks. Many say under-strain preparatory and secondary schools need more, not fewer, resources;
“I have up to 120 pupils to look after. Another 30 and I can forget any personal tuition, and their education will suffer”. Public sector workers are also up in arms on another issue; financial inducements for them to change jobs or leave the civil service altogether. Unions claim this is the first step towards ending job security, which along with pensions has traditionally compensated for the modest pay rates.
The government has vowed it will not backtrack on its chosen course, so France seems to be heading for a summer battle of wills on several fronts, even if everyone agrees the public accounts have to be purged of the red ink.