Tens of thousands of French teachers and their supporters took to the streets Tuesday for a national strike and protests over education job cuts under President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.
As children nationwide packed into a shrinking number of classes because their teachers were out, Sarkozy insisted that his first responsibility was to private-sector workers and employers facing international competition at a time of economic woe, not state employees.
The strikes and protests _ and Sarkozy's retort _ come as France is gearing up for presidential and legislative elections next year. Labor unions want to ratchet up the pressure on Sarkozy's conservatives, who have cut public-sector jobs as a way to help reduce France's bloated budget deficit.
In a first, private school teachers joined the walkout with their public-sector colleagues who are angry about job cuts. Tens of thousands of positions have been cut since 2007 and a further 14,000 are planned to go in 2012.
"I know quite well that there are protests today. It's normal in a democracy," Sarkozy said during a visit to a biofuels refinery in Venette, north of Paris. "But the jobs under threat are not in the public sector _ it's jobs in industry, jobs in business, and jobs exposed to competition."
Teachers counter that such penny-pinching will compromise France's ability to compete over the longer term with an educated work force _ and schools have already run into training problems and staff shortages because of the cuts.
Scores of protests were being held across the country Tuesday. The country's largest teachers' union estimated that more than 165,000 demonstrators took part in over 100 marches held around France. In southwestern Bordeaux, thousands of protesters marched through banners like one read "Black Future."
"This is a thorough attack on the educational system," said Bernard Dedeban, a regional official with the FSU educators union in southwestern Toulouse. "The government ... is challenging the idea of investing in the future through education of future citizens."
According to the Education Ministry, more than one in four public primary school teachers and one in five high school teachers went on strike, though two teachers' unions put those figures both at over 50 percent.
Sylvie Corbet in Venette, France contributed to this report.