French teachers going on strike test government's reform mettle

French Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem

PARIS - Teachers go on strike across France on Tuesday, testing President Francois Hollande's resolve to push through reforms against strong opposition to measures his government says will improve the creaking school system.

School reform is a sensitive subject in a country that prides itself on equal access to education, and the plan to revamp secondary teaching is opposed by a majority of citizens, the conservative opposition and even parts of the ruling left.

The plan is to give schools more leeway on what they teach, to promote inter-disciplinary learning and counter the elitism that backers of the reform say poorly serves most children.

Labelled a "shipwreck for France" by one conservative deputy, the reform is being steered through by 37-year-old Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan-born daughter of working class parents, often hailed as a success story for French integration efforts.

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, now head of the opposition UMP, said she was an icon of the government's "unrelenting quest for mediocrity."

Among the most controversial aspects of Vallaud-Belkacem's reform is a plan to devote fewer hours to studying Latin and Greek and scrap an option allowing a minority of the most gifted children to take on two foreign languages aged 11, thus freeing up resources so that all can do so from the age of 12.

Vallaud-Belkacem hit back, calling some of her critics "pseudo-intellectuals" - a serious insult in France.

Teachers, a traditional bastion of Socialist Party support, are largely opposed to the reform, their unions say. In a rare show of unity, seven unions, representing 80 percent of staff, are joining Tuesday's strike.

The unions say the reform would increase inequalities between pupils and competition between schools.

An Odoxa opinion poll last week showed that over 60 percent of French people oppose the reform and think it will harm pupils' performance rather than improve it.

"People are often very wary of reform in France, there is a real fear of reform," said Eric Charbonnier, education policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Hollande has often struggled since his 2012 election to get reforms through in areas including taxation and labour rules but managed to force some economic dergulation through parliament this year.

Few in France dispute that the school system needs reforming. OECD studies have shown that 15-year-old pupils' level in mathematics dropped between 2003 and 2012, for example.

France is also the country where pupils' performance is most closely linked with their parents' socio-economic background and where children of immigrant descent are most likely to fail, one OECD study showed.