What spring is to Paris, protests are to French students

Patricia Senechel, a third-year law student at the Assas branch of the University of Paris, put down her books Tuesday. She then joined about 12,000 fellow students near the National Assembly protesting the government's education reform bill being debated inside.

The bill would open universities to all applicants, require students to pass an examination after the second year to continue with their studies, and link the number of students permitted to continue in an area of study with the number of job opportunities available in that field.

Expecting the parliamentary debate to provoke the largest and most violent student demonstrations to date, rows upon rows of riot police, wielding tear-gas rifles, blocked Patricia and her friends. A few small groups of students hurled rocks at the police, who then fired tear gas into the crowds.

On the whole, though, the demonstrations were anticlimactic. The violent groups were not large enough to seriously tax the police, and the entire crowd was not nearly large enough to give May 1983 the air of May 1968.

''I am scared by the reform and convinced we must do something to stop it,'' Patricia said, echoing many of her fellow demonstrators. ''But it isn't life or death.''

For Patricia, in fact, the possibility of exams next week seems more important than the bill. She spent the weekend cramming.

Patricia's faltering conviction is typical, which leaves the government optimistic the student demonstrations have begun to run their course. Officials note that medical students reached an agreement last week which ended their strike and that the remaining students out on the streets have not picked up support from the public at large.

President Francois Mitterrand felt confident enough to state before Tuesday's demonstration that the unrest - which is virtually a rite of spring in Paris - was fairly ''ordinary.''

But the President's serene confidence does not mean that he has mollified the educational community. A wide spectrum of normally apathetic young people remain angry about the bill. Patricia's priority is getting good grades to assure her future, but she feels the bill threatens the value of her diploma enough for her to put down her books and march on the streets.

Some professors have also joined in the protests. On Tuesday a group of law teachers donned flowing red robes to march.

''We are not used to doing this,'' one professor said. ''But we cannot accept mediocrity in the universities and have no other way of having our voices heard.''

But the students remain too divided, and they lack the conviction to construct a solid front which might stop the reform.

At the demonstrations, for example, three different groups protested the reform separately. The Trotskyites started in the southeast of the city. The Independents started further south. And the largest group, composed of generally conservative students, started in the southwest of the city.

When all the groups met in front of the Invalides near the National Assembly, the disputes between them were almost as heated as their protests directed at police.

''Those leftists want to democratize the universities, let anyone in and ruin them,'' said an Assas law student, Sophie Erulin.

''Oh, you are just one of those spoiled bourgeois kids,'' retorted art student Frederic LaVarbe.

Many, if not a majority of the students, say they abhor such ideological posturing. They proclaim themselves apolitical.

The problem is that the students have been unable to reconcile the diverse interests of Sophie and Frederic. Eliminating ''selective'' admission before university studies begin, as the reform proposes, ''devalues'' Sophie's diploma, but fits in well with Frederic's ''democratic'' conception of an open-admission university system.

Yet Frederic is also angered by the reform. Linking the number of students to job opportunities in their field would presumably leave many art students out in the cold.

Divided, the student movement attracts little broad public support. Few workers are sympathetic to the students' complaints, and the unions have stayed quiet - a marked contrast to 1968 when student protests set off a nationwide wave of strikes.

So the government seems determined to press ahead with the reform bill. It is expected to be fiercely debated in Parliament during the next couple of days, but its passage is practically assured because of the Socialist majority.

''The bill will pass,'' concludes a glum Patricia, heading off to study for her exams.

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