By Carole Landry
December 16, 2008
French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended on Tuesday the decision to backtrack on education reform in the face of student protests that raised fears of Greek-style social unrest.
The decision to put the overhaul of high school curriculum on hold for a year was seen as the government’s first major retreat from reform since Sarkozy took office in May 2007 on a platform of sweeping change.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks Tuesday at the European Parliament in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg. Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images
“I support high school reform and it will happen, but we need to take the time to listen and to consult,” Sarkozy told a news conference in Strasbourg following an address to the European Parliament there.
Protests over education reform turned violent last week, with students clashing with police in Brest, Rennes and Lille, all cities in northern France that have fallen on hard economic times.
“When you see people confront each other with such violence, when you see the pillage, when you see what we have seen in a country like Greece, obviously it makes us think twice,” said Sarkozy.
But he added: “If I had to accelerate or halt reforms every time there was social trouble in one of the 27 countries of the European Union, I would not be doing much”.
Sarkozy’s reform drive also came under attack when a group of lawmakers from 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.
A much-touted plan by Sarkozy to ban advertising on French public television meanwhile was approved by the broadcaster’s board of directors, circumventing a parliament filibuster by the opposition.
Socialist lawmakers have filed hundreds of amendments to obstruct the passage of the broadcast bill that would end advertising on France Televisions and see the head of the group appointed directly by the president.
Public radio and television staff have staged protests and a strike against the reform, which they see as a threat to the independence of public broadcasting, although Sarkozy insists it will help boost programme quality.
Education Minister Xavier Darcos announced late Monday he was delaying a broad overhaul of the school curriculum after weeks of protests, but student unions kept up their protest action.
Thousands of students marched in Paris, Bordeaux and other cities across France and more protests were planned for Thursday against the plan that would pare down classroom hours and create a new semester system, modelled after Finnish high schools.
The government’s resolve to push through the plan appeared to wane after rioting erupted in Greece, sparked by the police fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy that laid bare deep discontent among the country’s youth.
On the question of Sunday shopping, the government is set to present to parliament on Wednesday a bill doubling the number of working Sundays from five to 10 per year – on top of the Christmas holiday period.
But the measure falls way short of Sarkozy’s plan to introduce Sunday shopping in the entire retail sector, which ran into fierce opposition from the Catholic Church and unions.
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 supermarkets.
Seems Sarkozy is antagonising a lot of people. He is now his own worst enemy.
Give him an inch he will take a mile.