Hundreds of schools were closed across France on Thursday as teachers and other education staff went on strike in anger over changing Covid rules for schools. As thousands took to the streets from Paris to Marseille, the Prime Minister agreed to meet with union bosses.
It's being described as the biggest protest since 2003, when teachers went on strike over the pension reform proposed by then PM François Fillon. At the time, 74 percent of primary school teachers joined, followed by more than 70 percent in high schools.
"We haven't seen such a tight group of unions bringing together all levels of teaching staff and management for a very long time," education historian Claude Lelièvre told French daily Libération.
Motivated by long queues for tests outside pharmacies, the government this week eased rules on Covid checks for students who have been exposed to an infected person, with Prime Minister Jean Castex announcing the changes on Monday's evening news.
However, this did not go down well with teachers who felt the government was out of touch with the reality on the ground.
"Fed up" read the banners seen in near the Luxembourg gardens of central Paris where protesters gathered to begin their march at the beginning of the afternoon.
A sentiment echoed across the rallies held in other French cities, where the turnout figures varied depending on reports by organisers and police.
"I'm on strike against this virus and I solemnly swear that I am underpaid and viewed with contempt by my minister," read one banner in Clermont-Ferrand, showing a photo of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
In Rennes, western France, where 4,500 protesters turned out according to organisers, ironic slogans such as "my banner is atrocious, so is your protocol" and "refresh the air, fire Blanquer" could be seen.
"I'm on strike because I want to bring meaning back into my profession," Margot, a primary school director told AFP.
"Right now I'm doing so much administration, I'm neglecting the children, having to justify rules to families that I don't even believe in. It's time for all that to stop."
While the Education Ministry said almost 40 percent of primary school teachers had walked out, top union Snuipp put the figure at 75 percent, with half of primary schools closed for the day.
In the secondary school sector, the ministry said 23.7 percent went on strike, while the union representing them said 62 percent of its members were striking.
Unions complain that their members are unable to teach properly, are not adequately protected against coronavirus infection and frequently hear about changes to health precautions via the media rather than their hierarchy.
The strike has made headlines, in particular since school inspectors and directors joined the ranks of teachers, calling a day of action "to condemn the indescribable mess" the new health protocol has entailed.
"There's too much of a gap between the restrictions and the reality on the ground, we're simply worn out," Patrick Roumagnac, a representative for the national education inspection unit told AFP.
"The government announces things, but no one thinks about what it means for staff on the ground," agreed Olivier Flipo, the head of a Paris school.
"They're asking hellish things of us and it's all going to the dogs," he said in reference to having to deal with the difficulty combining distance learning with in-person classes.
Parents join in
"I understand the teachers and their position ... classes are too big, they don't get paid enough, their working conditions aren't the best," a parent outside a northeast Paris school told AFP.
"I understand what they're asking for, it's justified, they're not doing this to bother us," said another.
As marches got underway, Castex announced that Blanquer would host a meeting with trade union leaders at the end of the afternoon.
Health Minister Olivier Véran, who just announced he was Covid positive said he would join in by video conference.
Coming as France's presidential election campaign gets under way ahead of an April vote, the walkout is awkward for President Emmanuel Macron's government which has prided itself on keeping schools open to ease pressure on parents through the pandemic.
"Until now, the public thought the government and President Emmanuel Macron had managed the crisis properly," Brice Teinturier of pollster Ipsos told AFP.
But if there is significant disruption from the strike, "that balance risks toppling," he added.
French politicians have seized on the strike as a way to push their campaign agendas.