Behind French student strike: worry over society's direction. Immediate concern is over proposed education reforms

Blowing horns and beating drums in the warm December sunshine, tens of thousands of chanting and singing students marched through Paris streets yesterday to protest the French government's proposed educational reforms. It is one of the biggest student protests the country has seen since the student upheavals of May 1968. It is also part of a general strike in universities and high schools around the country that has enjoyed the widespread support of faculty members.

That students are out in the streets or occupying university buildings is not unusual to Parisians. Student protests in France are something of a yearly springtime ritual. And educational reforms under the previous Socialist government have also provoked student protests.

But what has surprised politicians and social observers here is the magnitude of these protests. More than 70 university campuses nationwide are on strike, along with numerous high schools, bringing higher education in France to a virtual standstill over the past week.

The immediate cause of the protests is a series of educational reforms proposed by the minister of higher education, Alain Devaquet. One main point of contention with the students and teachers is the proposed doubling or trebling of entry fees, which are currently 450 francs ($69).

Another proposed reform would make entrance requirements to certain universities more rigorous. Currently, any French student who has passed the baccalaur'eat - an exam administered to all students at the end of high school - can enter a university. In France, higher education is considered a right, not a privilege. Mr. Devaquet's law would enable universities to establish additional entrance requirements, and introduce qualifying exams between college years.

Last, and most distressing to the students, is a reform that would differentiate among diplomas granted at different universities. Until now, when French students graduate, they are given a ``national diploma.'' This diploma is supposed to be regarded as one of equivalent national value. The students are worried that the new law would harm students graduating from the less prestigious universities.

But as disturbing as all these proposals are to the students, the groundswell of protest seems - even to the French - out of proportion. Already, inequalities exist implicitly in the French educational system, and the best universities and high schools already have an unofficial selection system to choose the best students.

The students themselves recognize that the current strike is more of a generalized protest against the direction of French society.

``The changes are symbolic,'' says Sylvie Larri`ere, from the Jussieu campus of the University of Paris, of the educational reforms. The students are worried that France is heading in the direction of American-style universities, with high tuition fees and private funding.

But French students are also protesting the current inequalities of their educational system. France already employs a system of what are called ``grandes 'ecoles,'' elite schools with highly competitive entrance examinations that give their graduates much easier access to the highest levels of government and industry. ``It's unacceptable for them to try to make our faculties [universities] grandes 'ecoles,'' Sylvie says.

Christophe Thiennot, a math and physics student who is on strike, objects to what he calls the ``privatization of the universities.'' He refers to the government's program to denationalize many of France's major companies. ``Universities are not companies,'' another student says. ``They shouldn't be run by the laws of profit.''

In spite of their protests, French students of 1986 see themselves as having little in common with the idealistic students of 1968, who wanted an overhaul of the French educational system and whose protests sent tremors to the very core of French society. Today's French students have a generalized feeling of disillusionment with political parties from either end of the spectrum. ``We're against political parties,'' says Yves, a student organizer. ``The political parties, left and right, can't address our aspirations. We ask ourselves, what is going to happen to us? In five years, will I have a job? What is our future?''

Many of these students entered their teens as the Socialists came into power and began to broaden social reforms. Since Prime Minister Chirac's conservative government came into power last March, it has moved toward tightening eligibility rules for nationality and immigration, and it has increased the power of the police. All these themes have surfaced in the current student protests.

The Chirac government, shaken by the scope of the student protests has said that it will evaluate the turnout of yesterday's protest march before deciding how to proceed with the proposed law. Last week, an estimated 200,000 students protested the proposed law. Police estimated 130,000 to 150,000 students and their supporters participated in yesterday's demonstration.

The Socialists, on the other hand, see the youthful protesters as the kind of people they would like to attract to their party, and are looking for ways to tap their enormous energies.

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