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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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Mme. Iconomou is the one teacher of mine I find during my visit, although I'm told my English teacher is still here. (Apparently the tapes I recorded for him so he could familiarize his students with the American accent are still used in the school's language lab; when I'm introduced to another English teacher, his face lights up: ``I thought I recognized that voice!'')

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A French woman of Greek heritage, Mme. Iconomou is as warm and tanned and attractive as when she regularly spent a part of her lunch period correcting the French grammar and literary commentaries of one struggling American. But she becomes serious as she discusses the lyc'ee today.

``I have a feeling that so many of the students come just to pass the time,'' she says, noting that this is most true among those who would have dropped out of school a year or two ago if it weren't for the government's new efforts to hold down teen-age unemployment and graduate more students. Echoing comments from a number of other teachers here, she says this ``democratization'' of the schools has led to a general lowering of standards in her classes.

``We've all been forced little by little to abandon the abstract writers,'' she says. ``Before I always started my premi`ere [junior] classes with something from Montaigne or Pascal. Now, it's only at the end of the year, and even then I only mention them in relation to other, more concrete authors.'' Students want to specialize earlier

This erosion of academic standards in the lyc'ees is not lost on many of the students here. At a time when competition and individual achievement are reinforced by a depressed economic picture, there is little patience among the motivated for weaker students who they feel tend to hold back the class.

During a discussion in an English class, a strong majority of students say they are for the old system that required choosing an academic concentration after the seconde, or sophomore, year. For the past few years, that choice has been made one year later. ``My complaint is that this means the rest of us are mixed in with the weaker students for an extra year,'' says one young woman seated at the front of the class.

Another young woman says she was unable to get into the concentration of her choice -- science -- after her grades suffered ``because of the poor students taking too much of the teacher's time.'' Whether or not that is the reason, the fact remains that only a handful of students in the class consider freshmen and sophomores in high school too young to choose a concentration that will affect the course of their life. Yet it was complaints about the early-selection system -- complaints I heard often in the early '70's -- that led to the new, ``democratic'' system, now so unpopular with a more success-conscious generation.

Michel Marin stands in Dumont d'Urville's courtyard, the picture of success: navy blue suit, red silk tie, supple leather loafers. Not too long ago, when he was a Socialist representative's legislative aide, he figured in a national magazine's list of young Frenchmen to keep an eye on. Now he works for the regional government council that covers the area between Marseille, the Italian border, and the Alps. I ask him if he understands the word ``Yuppie,'' but his only response is a wrinkled forehead.

Twelve years ago, he was the first student to greet me, with a sarcastic ``Hello American boy!'' the day I walked into our economics class. His blond hair was long, his leather jacket was black, and his bible was a paperback translation of Kerouac's ``On the Road.''

Now married and the father of a round-faced baby boy, Michel still feels close to what's going on in the schools. For six years, while studying for his law degree, he worked in a nearby technical high school. He is not encouraged by what he saw there.

``You find whole classes of students who are unable to put together a correct and coherent sentence,'' he says. ``The problem is: They don't read anymore.'' He says many students in the school had given up on finding any success in life. ``If they're not in one of the few bright areas,'' he says, ``such as electronics or telecommunications, they probably don't have much of a future. It's a whole generation that's more or less lost,'' he says.

Then father and son begin to smile, as Michel starts bouncing the next generation on his knee. Suddenly conscious that he may have painted a darker picture of the situation than he had intended -- a tendency that is as quintessentially French to Americans as optimism is quintessentially American to the French -- Michel says he hopes he doesn't sound too pessimistic.

``But believe me,'' he adds, looking down at his jiggling son, ``this boy is going to read.''