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Anger Over Pension Reform Grips France

May 20, 2003

PARIS (AP) _ A fresh wave of anger over government pension reforms swept across France as more than 300,000 protesters marched and striking teachers prevented students from taking part of their high-school graduation exams.

The teachers’ actions, which disrupted the centerpiece of the country’s educational system on Monday, split the union movement and drew angry reactions from government leaders.

About 335,000 people _ including teachers, state-owned France Telecom employees, train workers, tax collectors, postal workers, hospital staff and police officers _ marched nationwide, police said.

A Paris protest drew at least 38,000 people.

Another 25,000 people marched in the southern city of Marseille while at least seven other cities and towns saw marches with more than 10,000 people.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s government wants to end the privileged status of public sector employees by requiring them to work for 40 years to gain full retirement pay, putting them on a par with private sector employees.

The government has warned the retirement system will collapse within 20 years if not changed because the number of retirees is growing faster than the number of workers contributing to the system.

``France will not be able to have one of the best social systems in the world with less and less work,″ Raffarin said Monday. ``We must increase the number of hours worked in France to finance social progress. There’s no other solution.″

Strikes hit schools hard, with about half of the staffs in elementary and high schools skipping class, the Education Ministry said.

At the Deodat de Severac high school in the southern city of Toulouse, about 100 teachers chained and padlocked the entrance and urged colleagues not to supervise the exams, known as the baccalaureate.

The action prevented students from taking elective sports tests that are part of the high school graduation exams. However, some students pursuing a technical diploma in chemistry were able to slip through a back door and take their exams, the school said.

Bernard Deswarte, a geography teacher and member of the FSU union in Toulouse, accused the government of trying to strong-arm teachers back to work by refusing to reschedule exams until after a deal has been stuck on pension reforms.

He said that by forcing teachers to effectively choose between putting students’ future in peril or halting the walkouts, the government was violating their ``right to strike.″

Nearly 2,000 college students at the nearby University of Perpignan were also unable to take scheduled exams Monday because of teacher protests, the university said. It said the exams would be rescheduled.

Education Minister Luc Ferry denounced the teachers.

``We cannot accept that they take students hostage by boycotting exams,″ he said in an interview published Monday in daily La Croix. He threatened punitive action for dereliction of duty.

Parents’ organizations also were outraged.

``A line has been crossed that should not have been,″ said Christian Janet, head of PEEP parents’ association.

The secretary general of the FSU union, Gerard Aschieri, said blocking exams ``is not a good strategy″ but urged the government not to make the situation worse by issuing threats.

Teachers’ unions said exam disruptions were isolated acts conducted without their approval.

``It’s out of the question to call for the blocking of exams. Our target is the government, not students or their parents,″ said Luc Berille, head of the second-biggest teachers’ union, UNSA.

Monday’s strikes and demonstrations did not affect transport. Last week, walkouts by transport workers shut down much of France, leaving air travelers stranded and forcing Paris commuters to stay home or walk to work.

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