AFP - Protesting French students joined forces with teachers Tuesday to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to abandon contested reforms, amid fears the movement could touch off wider social unrest.
Lecturers on both the political left and right have been staging sporadic strikes for several weeks in faculties and research labs across the country, in protest at government plans to overhaul their working conditions.
Seven teachers' unions were to lead marches on Tuesday in Paris and other cities, from Marseille to Strasbourg, for the second time in a week, backed by four of France's powerful student unions.
Ten days after massive crowds marched to demand state help on jobs and wages, and with a three-week-old general strike in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the government is desperate to keep a lid on the student protests.
"The air smells of gunpowder," the left-wing daily Liberation warned in an editorial. "The movement gripping France's universities could well be the spark that sets off the explosion."
France's Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse on Monday appointed a mediator to defuse the situation, and has offered to "rework" the contested reform decree, which is set to come into force in September.
But commentators suggest Sarkozy may shelve the reform to prevent the conflict escalating, as he did with a planned high-school reform last year.
"Retreat is in the air," wrote Liberation.
Battered by economic crisis, Sarkozy's approval rating has collapsed to 36 percent, its lowest since he came to power 21 months ago, a poll showed Monday.
The president is already facing a tense few weeks as he prepares for talks with unions on February 18 on helping working families through the economic crisis -- hoping to defuse the threat of further strikes and protests.
The French university row centres on a decree that would transform academics' work conditions.
Chief among the bones of contention, it would force academics to submit their research for assessment by university officials every four years, in addition to the normal process of peer review.
Experts estimate that up to a fifth of French academics, whose time is officially split between teaching duties and research, are no longer productive, but say this goes undetected unless they apply for a promotion.
While accepting the current system needs to change, academics deeply object to being assessed by officials from outside their field, and worry that university bosses will gain huge powers to promote or demote staff at will.
The row has brought to a head wider resentment of Sarkozy's drive to shake up the state university system.
Students are fired up over changes to the syllabus for trainee schoolteachers, as well as planned job cutbacks in education and reforms boosting the financial independence of French universities from the state.
Many researchers meanwhile feel they are being made scapegoats by a government intent on trimming down the public sector, and were stung when Sarkozy described French academe as "mediocre".
On Monday, a dozen of France's 85 universities including the Paris Sorbonne formally asked the government to scrap the reform and relaunch talks with the profession.