Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto defended his sweeping reform agenda on Monday, urging his countrymen to back the changes after protests against his planned energy and education overhauls.

Pena Nieto used his first state of the union address to tout the "grand transformation" of Mexico that his administration has pushed since he took office nine months ago.

As he spoke, thousands of teachers maintained a base camp in Mexico City's historic Zocalo square from where they have launched protests in the past two weeks. On Sunday, a march to Congress was marred by some clashes between police and masked protestors.

"We knew beforehand that getting the grand transformation of Mexico would be complex because we have to defeat inertia and resistance," Pena Nieto said from his presidential residence of Los Pinos before an audience of officials, military officers and lawmakers.

"As president, I respect the rights of everyone, but I have also decided to use every instrument of the democratic state to drive the transformation demanded by the majority of Mexicans.

"I urge everyone to be part of a Mexico that is not afraid of transformation."

Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and returned to the presidency in December after a 12-year hiatus, has struck a pact with rival leftist and conservative parties to pass a slew of reforms.

The chamber of deputies approved late Sunday the implementation of new rules that will require teachers to undergo mandatory testing in order to get jobs and promotions, a measure that has triggered strikes in southern Mexican states.

With the economy slowing down in the first half of the year, Pena Nieto insisted that his plans to shake up the energy and banking sectors, as well as the tax system, were crucial for the country's growth.

His plans to open the state-controlled oil sector to foreign investment has drawn opposition from the left, with two-time presidential election runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador calling for a demonstration on Sunday.

Addressing the nation's security troubles, which he promised to resolve, Pena Nieto said drug-related murders had dropped by 20 percent in the first six months of his administration compared to the same period last year, though analysts have raised doubts about the government's statistics.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]