PARIS (Reuters) - Thousands of French postal workers and teachers went on strike on Tuesday in separate protests over the future of two of France’s biggest public sector institutions.
The protests are the latest in a series of strikes by public sector workers angered by reforms President Nicolas Sarkozy says are necessary to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
According to the SNES-FSU union, 40 percent of secondary school teachers took part in the strike over job reductions and schools reforms, although the education ministry said the figure was just 12.3 percent.
In the primary and kindergarten sector, Education Minister Luc Chatel said around 20 percent of teachers stopped work.
The size of the schools system, which employs almost 1 million people, and La Poste, which employs more than 250,000, underlines the sensitivity of the issues for the government.
Teachers’ unions are angry at measures which include new training standards, changing the selection process to make it easier for parents to choose a school and steadily reducing the number of teachers.
But Chatel said the government would not back down on plans that aim to trim the overall public service payroll by replacing only half the public servants who retire.
“This policy allows us to lift teachers financially, which is something they have been looking forward to for some time,” he told RTL radio.
The government plans to reduce the number of teachers by 16,000 next year, helping shrink the education system payroll by 50,000 positions over three years.
Teachers say the cuts put increasing strain on those still working in classrooms and also that changes to selection rules risk leaving some disadvantaged schools behind.
Philippe Merieux, a professor of education at Lyon University and a prominent commentator on schools reform said the government was undermining the quality of education.
“We’re beginning to see terrible effects in some schools with the abolition of catchment areas, increasing ghettoisation and confusion and even despair among many teachers,” he told France Info radio.
In a separate protest five post office unions called a strike against plans to change the status of post office operator La Poste into a limited company in preparation for the liberalisation of the European postal services market in 2011.
According to the Sud union, one in three postal workers joined the strike, although management said the participation rate was just 14 percent.
The union said in a statement that postal workers were “convinced that the project was just a first step towards privatisation, contrary to what the government and La Poste management keep saying.”
The government intends to provide a capital injection of 2.7 billion euros (2.4 billion pounds), directly and via state-owned bank Caisse des Depots (CDC), which La Poste says it needs to become more competitive.
Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Jon Boyle