The students taking on Sarkozy

Will there ever be an end to the protests that are paralysing France's higher education institutions?

French universities have been in chaos for almost four months as lecturers, researchers and students have engaged in strikes, blockades and demonstrations against government reforms. In recent days the action has apparently been losing momentum – with fewer taking to the streets and universities reopening – but activists say this is only a pause for students to take their examinations, and the movement will continue until demands are met.

The main grievances are against a law giving universities more autonomy and, particularly, a decree affecting the working conditions of university staff; cuts in the numbers of tenured academic posts; plans to reform teacher training; and reform of the public sector research system.

The crisis can be traced back two years, to the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had campaigned to replace France's regime of state intervention with a system of initiative and enterprise, rewarding individual merit and hard work.

He promised priority for research, including greater autonomy for state-controlled universities and billions of euros to equip France for the "worldwide battle for intelligence". He aimed to create at least 10 French centres of excellence of higher education and research to rank among the world's top institutions by 2012.

These would redress France's consistently poor performance in international rankings, such as the Jiao Tong University of Shanghai and the Times Higher-QS. One explanation for the poor showing is that these tables give a high rating to research, which in France is credited not to universities but to specialised organisations such as the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), even though much of the work is carried out in joint university units.

So, research was a prime target for radical restructuring, and the government plan is to give universities a greater role and switch emphasis to applied research with increased private-sector participation. The state would continue to plan strategy, but would allocate funds to "projects" rather than automatically financing the CNRS and other organisations which would become resource agencies responsible for selecting and funding programmes.

Progress was swift. Under Opération Campus, 12 higher-education and research clusters have been selected as France's internationally competitive centres.

The controversial Universities' Freedom and Responsibility law gives control over budgets, human resources and buildings to university presidents and the new governing boards, which are reduced in size but have greater representation from outsiders, including companies. The first 18 of the 82 public universities have so far adopted the measures, and the others must follow by 2012.

From the start there was opposition to the reforms, which are piloted by Valérie Pécresse, minister for higher education and research. Opponents claimed the changes would mean an end to France's tradition of higher education and research as a public service and its replacement by a competitive, "Anglo-Saxon" system, modelled on the United States and Britain.

Students feared the introduction of high fees – France currently has among the lowest in Europe – and of selection by universities; at present anyone who has passed the baccalauréat exam has a right to a place.

Sarkozy's provocative manner raised the tension. In January, setting out his plans for the sector, including the hotly opposed reform of the CNRS, he criticised French research for being "infantilising" and "paralysing" and argued that French scientists were not as productive as British ones. Researchers reacted with fury.

Alarm increased with Pécresse's remarks that, despite extra resources for higher education and research, her ministry had to take its share of job cuts, equivalent to hundreds of tenured posts. Another major grievance is the proposed reform, announced without consultation, of teacher training, an area of responsibility shared by Pécresse and Xavier Darcos, the education minister.

The nationwide strike began on 2 February, and the protests have continued ever since, often in unusual and imaginative ways: lectures in public places such as parks, shopping malls or the Métro; a continuous parade of so-called "obstinés" marching outside Paris City Hall who clocked up 1,001 hours non-stop and inspired colleagues around the country to do the same. Protesters have turned out for their own demonstrations and joined workers at rallies on national general strike days. Lecturers have refused to invigilate or mark examinations, or to prepare the new teacher-training programmes. A national strike committee meets regularly and co-ordinates actions nationwide. Dozens of universities closed.

Meanwhile, the government has made some concessions. Pécresse has twice redrafted the contentious decree – which was, nevertheless, adopted by the government without the agreement of the major unions on the joint ministry consultative council. Darcos postponed the teacher-training reform for a year, and his agreement to give civil-service status to trainees who pass the competitive entry exam, and pay them, was welcomed by the main teaching union federation, the FSU, which did not, however, consider the gesture enough to call off the strikes.

Recent signs are that the movement has lost momentum, with fewer marches and more universities voting to reopen. A fortnight ago 15 institutions remained totally or partially closed; but last week academics and students at the most radical universities – including the Sorbonne in Paris – opted to resume work, after the longest period of disruption of higher education in France in recent history.

For now, activists say they are returning so students can take their exams and avoid wasting a year or receiving "devalued" diplomas. Prime Minister François Fillon and Pécresse are talking of moving the exams to September. Pécresse has told student representatives grants will be paid for an extra month.

University presidents have asked for calm and for negotiations to continue. An online petition calling for a new recasting of the university system, proposed by 29 eminent academics in Le Monde, is gathering support.

There are signs the protest movement is not dead. A spokesman from the action group Sauvons l'Université said activists had not given up the struggle. Lecturers at Strasbourg University and the Sorbonne issued declarations explaining why they would not give in.

However, Sarkozy himself said earlier this month that the government would not retreat on university reform, which was "in the interest of our students, our universities". The autumn could yet see a turbulent start to the new academic year.