French students hold fresh protests against reform

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PARIS, Nov 27 (Reuters) Thousands of French students held protests today over President Nicolas Sarkozy's university reform but the largest union said it had made progress in talks with the government.

The students fear the reform will create a two-tier education system funded by big businesses and have been blocking university campuses around France for several weeks in protest.

The student action comes at a difficult time for Sarkozy, following nearly two weeks of strikes by transport workers and during a spate of violence in poor Paris suburbs.

Between 43 and 46 of France's 85 universities were blocked today and around 3,000 university and high school students marched in central Paris, chanting ''we don't want to be fodder for bosses'' and calling for the law to be scrapped.

Police said there were around 1,500 protesters in Bordeaux, with one banner reading ''No to the law ... and to two-speed studies.'' Demonstrations drew about 1,000 protesters each in Rouen and Marseille, according to police, though organisers said the numbers were higher.

The protests were designed to coincide with a meeting between the five main student unions and Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse.

Unef, the largest student union, said important progress had been made and its members would decide in the next couple of days whether to end their protest.

''We consider that there was some progress for students,'' said Unef spokeswoman Juliette Griffond.

But the UEC communist union said in a statement Pecresse offered nothing new during the talks and called for its members to increase their calls for the law to be scrapped and join another day of protest on Thursday.

Signs of union division are showing. The most radical students say the law would lead to university privatisation and want it withdrawn, but Unef is only asking for modifications and walked out of a weekend meeting with other unions.

Sarkozy has said he will not back down on the law, which he said will end years of neglect. The law, approved in July, gives universities a greater degree of autonomy over their resources and opens the way for more private sector financing.

''There's the problem of financing, of private funding for universities which will be increasingly large,'' said Pascal Marichalard, a 23-year-old social sciences student who was marching in Paris.

Sarkozy has promised a 5 billion euro increase in university funding by 2012, starting with a 1 billion euro rise next year for student accommodation and grants for poor students.

French universities have slipped down international league tables in recent years. Many are overcrowded, lacking funds and facilities and lowing their best staff to better paid jobs in the United States or elsewhere.

Reuters AK VP0034

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