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Striking Teachers in France Stop Tests

May 19, 2003

PARIS (AP) _ Striking teachers in southern France prevented students from taking part of their high school graduation exams Monday, disrupting the centerpiece of the country’s education system.

The action, part of nationwide protests by public sector workers against government pension reform plans, split the union movement and drew angry reactions from government leaders.

Also Monday, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, including postal and state-owned France Telecom employees, marched through Paris and other French cities Monday to protest plans to reform the retirement system _ in part by making teachers and other public employees work longer to qualify for full pensions.

Organizers said 100,000 people joined the Paris march. Police put the number at 38,000.

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.

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. He called on the government to launch a new round of talks before the main exam season gets underway in a month.

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.

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 growth in the number of retirees is outpacing that of workers who contribute to the system.

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