Changing face of a French school. At a Toulon high school, student concerns have become less political, more personal due to uncertain future By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
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But other changes reflect profound shifts in the way French high school students view their education, the world around them, and their future.Skip to next paragraph
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Twelve years ago, I could not walk through the school's main gate without being bombarded with political tracts covering a full spectrum of ideologies, from anarchy and differing interpretations of Trotskyism to fascism. Today, there is none of this. Then, the student forum was a political maelstrom that churned such emotional issues as the war in Vietnam, apartheid, and the difficulties facing American blacks. In the spring, we went on strike and paraded through the streets to protest a law removing student deferments for France's required year of military service.
Twelve years later, the student forum functions more like an American high school drama club. As I walk through the front gates, no one is on hand to ply his beliefs. One lonely sheet of paper taped to an outside wall urges students to ``resist'' a proposed increase in university fees, but it's gone later in the day.
Space provided for students on courtyard bulletin boards is generally taken up with posters announcing concerts and parties, or hand-lettered cards proposing private lessons in math, physics, or a foreign language. But two large posters inviting students to take part in very different activities are marked with graffiti that, in so many words, say, ``We find you suspect'': One, announcing a weekend to promote friendship between the youths of France and the Soviet Union, is covered with ``Gulag, Afghanistan, Solidarnosc''; on the other, showing Pope John Paul II inviting the young to Rome, a balloon has been drawn from the Pope's mouth, filled with the words ``Yes, come join the friends of [Chilean military leader Augusto] Pinochet.''
``It's the end of ideologies,'' says R'emy Airodi, Dumont d'Urville's principal, when asked to describe the temperament of today's students. The picture he paints is not a terribly cheery one.
``Today the students are too worried about the future, too afraid of ending up in the unemployment line to go out and demonstrate,'' says the man who has been at the school's helm since 1971.
``They lack confidence in themselves, so they seek refuge in the group. I'm afraid to say they even lack a certain punch. Those of us who were young during [World War II] would have never believed it -- we thought it was important to react. But there are so many of the young today who seem to have given up. . . .''
Asked about the dearth of interest in politics, one student says he thinks that fewer adolescents think for themselves, that they tend to adopt their parents' beliefs. But another young man disagrees. If we no longer embrace ideologies, he says, it's because we are no longer sure there are any ready-made answers.
Despite his own somber appraisal, Mr. Airodi enjoys the fact that today's students seem to work more easily with adults: Gone is the general distrust of anyone over 30. ``There's a certain kindness that we didn't have before. There's nothing menacing about them.''
A number of teachers second this last point. During a few minutes of impromptu questions and answers in one of her classes, French teacher Mich`ele Senn says she finds that many students do have closer ties to their teachers now. But when she goes on to add that large classes and the specter of the baccalaur'eat make class discussion a luxury, she is interrupted by an anxious student. He reproaches her for dominating a session that was supposed to give the students a chance to share their thoughts with the American reporter.
The interruption alone says more about a relaxing of student-teacher relations than all the comments culled from the class. If class discussion was rare during my time at Dumont d'Urville, interrupting the teacher with a reproach was virtually unknown.
Ir`ene Iconomou, another French teacher, says an ``opening up'' at the lyc'ee is reflective of a larger evolution in this Mediterranean city's way of life in general. She says the family knit has loosened, as more mothers have gone to work. Many students still go home for the two-hour lunch, as almost all of them did in my day, for example, but more than ever are now seen eating a sandwich or apple within the school grounds.
And many long-held taboos are now overlooked. Pregnant students are no longer banished from the school, and former students in their 20s who never achieved the bac are accepted back into class. ``Ten years ago we never saw this,'' she says.
She adds that there are practically no more rules at the school but that the students generally do not abuse this. She wonders if maybe they aren't too apathetic to think about causing much trouble.