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France: Students Take To The Streets

Prague, 20 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of French high-school pupils are again taking to the streets today in cities across the country to demand better schools and more teachers.

The nation-wide protest is the latest in a series of mass actions that last Thursday (Oct. 15) brought out an estimated 500,000 high-schoolers. That number represents about one-fifth of the total student population in what the French call "lycees", that is, the last three grades of pre-university classes.

The pupils complain that they put in unnecessarily long hours in overcrowded classrooms. In some southern French cites like Nimes and Montpelier, where the protest movement began last month, there are close to 40 students in a class, and classes without any teacher whatsoever are not uncommon. Significantly, some high-school teachers have joined the student protests to put additional pressure on France's Left government.

The students are also protesting what they consider a demanding curriculum that is out of touch with modern educational methods. Computers, for example, are relatively rare in French high schools, and even when there are some they are shared by three or four pupils. In addition, the high-schoolers complain, modern languages are almost always taught by non-native-speaking teachers who put the emphasis on dry grammar textbooks, as if they were teaching Latin, not English, Spanish or German.

In a public-opinion poll published over the weekend, nine of ten respondents supported the students' demands to end a chronic shortage of teachers and provide additional classroom space in good condition. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin --himself a former education minister (1989-91)-- has also generally been careful not to oppose the protests by the students. He recently described them approvingly as "consumers of a public service" who should be taken seriously.

But Jospin has also pledged to take a tough line against angry non-student trouble-making young people known as "casseurs", (literally "smashers"), who last week effectively broke up the protest march in Paris. These youths, many of them from run-down suburban housing developments, went on a rampage during Thursday's Parisien march. They burned scores of cars, pillaged shops and left more than 100 injured. As a result, the Parisian police today increased their force by one-half to almost 4,000, shortened the march route and removed all automobiles from the route.

Jospin's Education Minister --and old colleague and friend-- Claude Allegre has also endorsed the aims of the Lycee students, but has pleaded that his ministry does not have the funds to satisfy the students immediately. The students and the government, he insisted to a radio interviewer last week, "want the same things" but, he added, the government can only do what it has the means to do. Still, Allegre is likely to agree to some demands for immediate action when he meets tomorrow with a student delegation. Also tomorrow, the French National Assembly begins discussion of next year's budget, an ideal moment for the education ministry to plead for more money --and get it from a Left-controlled Assembly. One major problem, recognized by Allegre and many others, is the size and slowness of his ministry itself. Known as the "mammoth" for its inability to move quickly, the ministry employs 1.3 million people (out of a total work force of about 30 million) across the country, most of them elementary- and high-school teachers. In the centuries-old French tradition of centralizing all important decisions in Paris, it can take long months, sometimes years, before demands from the provinces are satisfied. Also, proportionately far more education funds are spent in Paris than elsewhere in the country.

Student protests in France have often spiraled out of control in the past, sometimes shaking or even bringing down governments. In 1990, during his stint as education minister, Jospin had a bitter experience with student demonstrations that left his reputation in tatters. Three years ago, conservative prime minister Alain Juppe watched impotently as largely high-school student protests swiftly escalated into a nation-wide strike movement --the beginning of the end of Juppe's premiership. And of course, the so-called student "cultural revolution" of May 1968 shook the country to its roots.

Few analysts expect today's high-schoolers to shake up the country that much. But most believe their movement will be at least partially successful. Commentators in the press and media have repeatedly praised the high-schoolers' movement, finding their rank-and-file members as well leaders remarkably sophisticated, mature and largely politically non-partisan. Asked about that during a television interview last week, one very composed and alert 17-year-old woman student leader said with a smile: "We don't want a revolution. We just want an education."