Parent power confronts Sarkozy

No French government has dared challenge a popular protest by millions of French people, especially

It's called la nuit des écoles (schools' night) and it is the latest attraction in France. Nothing to do with museums opening all night and free for all (that happens in May). Neither has it anything to do with Vélib', the free bicycle scheme that is all the rage in Paris and Lyons. Schools' night is a growing phenomenon in which, only a few weeks after its launch, more than 680 primary schools in France, both state and private, are participating. The idea is simple: parents and teachers occupy their children's schools at night. For how long? As long as it takes the French education minister, Xavier Darcos, to hear the country's complaints about Nicolas Sarkozy's education reforms, which the people want sent back to the drawing board.

The collective behind schools' night presents the event slightly differently. On its blog (log on to http//, it asks parents and children "to bring their good humour, duvet and pyjamas in order to debate other ways of reforming the school system in France". It also wants to inform everybody else of the inherent dangers of Sarkozy's reforms before it's too late. Independent from trade unions, the collective describes itself as citoyenne. In other words, it proposes citizen action.

In Paris, parents and teachers in the north-eastern districts - the tenth, 18th, 19th and 20th, the most socially and ethnically diverse arrondissements of the French capital - have been key in taking up the idea, which originally sprang up in the city of Angers. The challenge was to strike before the summer holidays. Implementing its reforms as fast as ever, the Sarkozy government announced on 29 April that primary schools would enter a new era from September 2008.

What is so objectionable about these reforms? Parents are particularly worried at the prospect of budget cuts in primary schools. This will mean three fewer teachers per school, with bigger classes, and less time and less attention given to each pupil at precisely the age when they need it the most. Many parents and teachers are also protesting against the creation, from January 2009, of a national database that will gather new information about each pupil, namely on their socioeconomic, ethnic and family backgrounds. This verges on the illegal in republican France, where citizens can't be categorised according to their ethnic origins.

The curriculum and timetable will also change from this September: no more school on Saturday mornings, no more optional support for pupils in difficulty, no more extra French lessons for non-francophone pupils.

On 5 June, Sarkozy justified his reforms: "For the past 35 years, France has been living beyond its means, always voting bigger and bigger budgets for education. But we don't need more, more, more education. We need better, better, better education." But the headteacher Nicole Roiron asks sarcastically: "How do you provide a better service when you're understaffed?" It's a question often repeated by parents at the school gates and in front of the cameras.

As with most protests in France, the support of the wider public is essential. With an ever-growing number of parents supporting their children's teachers, primary schools have found a way, beyond the obvious remedy of strike action, to hit back at the government. And this could make Darcos and Sarkozy think twice about proceeding with a further wave of reforms, this time for the secondary education system and universities, which they wanted to see in place by September 2009.

To this day, no French government has dared challenge a popular protest by millions of French people, especially when they take to the streets. If the schools' night form of protest appears to be more playful than the traditional confrontational French-style, and therefore potentially less effective politically, we have only to remember what parents in France have already achieved since Sarkozy arrived in power.

In just a year, they have elevated civil disobedience to an art form. They spearheaded resistance against Sarkozy's target to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants every year by hiding away the immigrants' children in their own homes, thus preventing their deportations as a family. It is impossible to say how many were involved, but there were enough to derail hundreds of planned deportations.

Now come les grandes vacances, the summer holidays. Time that should help teachers and parents sharpen their tactics for the reforms planned for the following term.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’