- education - France - Xavier Darcos
AFP - Facing student protests and a party revolt, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is backtracking on flagship reforms, a year and a half after he came to power on a platform of sweeping change.
Weeks of student protests forced Sarkozy's government to put a plan for high school education reform on ice amid fears that opposition from the streets could spread social unrest like that seen in Greece.
Education Minister Xavier Darcos announced late Monday he was delaying for a year a broad overhaul of the school curriculum, a move seen as the first major retreat from reform since Sarkozy took office in May 2007.
Despite the announcement, students staged protests in dozens of Paris high schools and unions decided to go ahead with scheduled nationwide marches on Tuesday and Thursday to demand the plan be fully scrapped.
Sarkozy's reform drive also came under attack when a group of MPs of his governing right-wing party refused to back a bill allowing shops to open on Sundays, forcing him to agree to a watered-down version of the legislation.
The new bill to be presented to the National Assembly on Wednesday will double the number of Sunday shopping days from five to 10 per year -- on top of the Christmas holiday period.
Sarkozy was forced to make concessions after party members came under intense lobbying from small shopkeepers, who are allowed to do business on Sunday mornings and feared competition from supermakets.
The bill also ran into strong opposition from the Catholic Church and unions who rejected Sarkozy's arguments that Sunday shopping could help spur consumer spending as the government battles a looming recession.
Protests over education reform turned violent last week, with students clashing with police in Brest, Rennes and Lille, cities in northern France that are also struggling with economic hardship.
Darcos said he had conferred with Sarkozy and that both agreed "this reform project had become a focal point for social movements," and risked snowballing into a political showdown with the government.
Thousands of high-school students have staged protests over the past weeks against the proposed changes that would have cut the number of classroom hours and created a new semester system, modelled after Finnish high schools.
Opponents dismissed the plan as an ill-conceived cost-cutting ploy and part of a broader strategy to slash tens of thousands of state jobs in the education sector.
It was a major climbdown for Darcos who had asserted he was "not the minister of national hesitation" and vowed to keep reforms on track despite an outcry from the streets.
But the government's confidence appeared to wane after rioting erupted in Greece, sparked by the police shooting of a 15-year-old boy that laid bare deep discontent among the country's youth.
The government denied the decision was a step back from reform and insisted it needed time to better explain the measures, but officials from the education and interior ministries voiced fears of an escalation from the streets.
"No one can control a youth movement. So in the current context we should not be toying with that," said an official quoted by Le Parisien newspaper on Tuesday.
French newspapers drew a direct link with the social explosion in Greece.
The decision was borne out of a fear of "contamination from Athens," wrote Didier Pobel in the Dauphine Libere newspaper while the Midi Libre daily invoked the "Greek scarecrow".