PARIS Tens of thousands of teachers went on strike across France on Tuesday to protest against measures aimed at revamping the country's creaking school system, but the government pledged to stick by its reform plan.
Billed as countering elitism and ensuring fairer use of teaching resources, the reform has faced criticism from trade unions, the conservative opposition, sections of the left and even Germany, which fears German-language teaching will suffer.
France's 840,000 teachers have long been a bastion of support for the Socialists and many voted for President Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential election. But the proposed reform has turned many against his already unpopular government.
"They're getting it completely wrong. We want a reform but not this one," 34-year-old physics teacher Sebastien Bourdellot said at a protest march in Paris. "I voted for Hollande in 2012, I even put up posters for him, but I really regret it."
Opinion polls show that while one in two teachers backed Hollande in the first round of the 2012 election, he is losing support and some are now tempted by the far-right National Front.
The plan, labelled a "shipwreck for France" by one conservative deputy, is to give schools more leeway on what they teach, promote inter-disciplinary learning and counter elitism.
The government says it is essential to help more children succeed and promised on Tuesday to push ahead with the reform.
"There will be a reform, and it will be one that allows everyone to succeed," Hollande told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. He assured her that learning German was a priority in French schools.
Around one in four teachers in lower secondary schools affected by the reform joined the strike, the Education Ministry said. Police estimated that around 3,500 people took part in the march in Paris, much lower than past protests on school issues.
The SNES-FSU union put strike turnout at over 50 percent of all secondary school teachers and said that over 10,000 people rallied in the capital.
Critics argue the reform will increase competition between schools and so exacerbate inequalities. Others fear a shift of resources away from German, Latin and Greek -- currently the choice of a minority of the most gifted pupils -- that will drag down overall standards.
Much of the criticism has focused on 37-year-old Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan-born daughter of working-class parents and a rising star in the government who is 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 what he called the government's "unrelenting quest for mediocrity."
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 OECD think tank group.
Hollande has struggled to get reforms implemented intact in areas including taxation and labour rules, but has managed to push some economic deregulation through parliament as well as a 2013 law permitting same-sex marriages.
Few in France dispute the school system needs changing. OECD studies have shown that 15-year-old pupils' level in mathematics dropped between 2003 and 2012, for example.
Despite its egalitarian goals, France is 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, a 2012 OECD study showed.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Mark John/Mark Heinrich)