In January, Mr Sarkozy lambasted France's research institutions as "infantilising and paralysing" and suggested that academics' work was not properly validated. He wants to move the sector away from state control and towards a model of university autonomy and competitive funding, which would mean an end to researchers' lifetime jobs.
Academics began an unlimited strike on 2 February. The action has since gained momentum, with students being denied courses and placements, universities closing and public demonstrations taking place.
As Times Higher Education went to press, Mr Sarkozy had tempered some proposed changes to employment conditions and plans for job cuts, but reforms of teacher training have proved a sticking point. The Government wants new schoolteachers to hold a masters in education, and it has folded teacher-training colleges into universities. Opponents object to the speed of the reforms, the abolition of a year's paid teaching practice and the reduction of academic content in teacher training.
Earlier this month, seven university presidents asked Mr Sarkozy to put the reforms on hold to allow for "real and collective reflection". The following day, the President said the Government would not retreat, arguing that the changes were in the interest of students and universities.
Mr Sarkozy has made provocative statements about education. He has described being forced to read a classic 17th-century novel, La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, as "pure torture". "Such comments by the French President are emblematic of the low priority he accords to literary studies, and more generally to areas of study that in his view are not sufficiently geared to enhancing the performance of French corporations," the website ireport.com said.