By Hugh Bronstein
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A wage strike and massive street protest by Argentine school teachers were energized on Wednesday by anger over a disparaging comment that President Mauricio Macri made about the country's public education system.
Buenos Aires traffic was paralyzed by tens of thousands of teachers marching on the presidential palace, demanding pay increases to help keep up with inflation which was 40 percent last year and is expected to be about 20 percent in 2017.
"The basic problem is the terrible inequality between those who can go to private school and those who have to fall into the public school system," Macri said on Tuesday while discussing a government study showing relatively bad public school results.
He then said his job was to make sure all children have the same opportunities whether they are born rich or poor. But the Peronist opposition and protesting teachers seized on the first part of his statement while ignoring the second.
Protesters held signs referencing the president's gaffe.
"Macri: I didn't fall into public school, I chose it", one said. A storm of Tweets lampooned him as well, with hash tags like #YoCai (I Fell) and #CaerEnLaPublica (Fall Into Public Schools).
Buenos Aires Governor Maria Eugenia Vidal, a Macri ally at the forefront of public school salary negotiations, said the teachers were playing politics.
"We are not naive," she tweeted. "For weeks a lot of teachers' union leaders have not wanted dialogue. They've stopped negotiating teachers' salaries."
The educators were scheduled to go back to class on Thursday, but they have warned of more strikes ahead if salary talks do not progress. With October congressional elections ahead, the protests come at a delicate time for Macri.
His "Let's Change" coalition needs a strong showing in October for him to steam ahead with free-market policy reforms.
A poll released on Sunday showed that for the first time since he took office in December 2015, more Argentines disapprove of Macri's performance than approve.
He was elected after more than a decade of populist rule left Argentina with rampant inflation, dwindling central bank reserves and a wide fiscal deficit. Home heating subsidy cuts and other fiscal belt tightening have started taking a political toll, even as the economy climbs out of recession.
The country's largest labor union has called a general strike for April 6.
(Additional reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Alistair Bell)