PARIS, Nov 22 (Reuters) Several thousand university and high school students demonstrated in cities around France today against a government reform of higher education that they say will lead to the privatisation of top universities.
The student protest is just one of several major challenges facing President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform programme, underscoring the difficulties his government faces as it tries to shake up the hidebound economy.
The Unef student union said 48 of France's 85 universities were totally or partially blocked by demonstrators today, the highest number since the student protest kicked off at the start of the month.
A dozen high schools in Paris were also shut, Unef said.
The student movement is looking to build momentum in its fight against a law approved in July which gives universities a greater degree of autonomy over their resources and opens the way for more private sector financing.
The government has dismissed the movement as politically motivated, and Sarkozy refused this week to go back on the law, which was watered down because of student complaints.
Student unions say the education reform will create a two-tier system that focuses funding on a few elite institutions and let big business dictate courses.
''No, no, no to privatisation,'' students chanted in Paris at a heavily policed rally. Police said some 2,400 students took to the streets, while the organisers put the number at 5,000.
Around 4,000 students attended a demonstration in France's second city, Lyon, around 2,000 in the southwestern city of Bordeaux and 1,000 in the northwestern city of Rennes.
The co-ordinated student rallies came on the day a nine-day transport strike appeared to fade away, as most rail employees finally voted to return to work and give negotiations a chance.
Government officials had feared a prolonged transport strike might have linked up with the student protest and snowballed into a concerted national challenge to its reform agenda.
Sarkozy has said the university reform is one of the most important yet undertaken, ending years of benign neglect.
France's universities have slipped down international league tables in recent years. Many are overcrowded, lacking funds and facilities and losing their best staff to better paid jobs in the United States or elsewhere.
Even a number of senior leftist intellectuals have backed the government reform and criticised the student movement.
REUTERS TB BST0115