So emotional is the subject that almost everybody here is calling it a ''war.'' ''Christians'' and ''infidels'' man the opposing armies. Their battlefield: private education.
Hostilities are high following the French Socialist government's announcement last week of a plan to tie publicly aided private schools more closely to the state. The plan is an attempt to pacify the many Socialists who want to end private schooling completely while not totally alienating the Roman Catholic Church, which runs 93 percent of the country's private schools, and the many parents who prefer them.
But the plan leaves no one happy. A shocked church refused to negotiate on the proposals. ''The proposals,'' Msgr. Jean Honore, president of the Church Education Commission, wrote in Le Monde, are designed ''simply to create a public power hegemony over the private schools.''
Many Socialists, especially the teacher's unions in the state system, were equally angered. ''The propositions don't go toward a united school system,'' said Jacques Pommatau, general secretary of the National Education Federation. ''Our objective is a united school system.''
The private school issue is so emotional because it has deep roots in French history. Free public schooling was only assured a century ago and its introduction by the Third Republic is seen by its supporters as the key triumph of the republic over monarchy.
At the same time, the Roman Catholic church has deep roots in the country's educational system. Catholic priests monopolized the teaching profession until 1880. Today, parish institutions still educate about one in six of France's 12 million pupils. In deeply religious areas such as Britanny, they are often the only schools available.
Private schools are also popular with parents who favor them for reasons other than religion. As in the United States, these parents argue that the private institutions provide higher educational standards and tighter discipline. In all, polls show that nearly two-thirds of all French citizens want to keep private schooling.
Nevertheless, during the presidential campaign, President Francois Mitterrand promised to abolish private schools. He argued that they maintain inequality and privilege. Socialist teachers, who make up the backbone of the party's militants , also could no longer stand the sweet deal the state gives the private schools.
The Catholic church maintains that it needs state aid to keep the schools running because it does not charge high fees to students. In 1959 under President Charles De Gaulle, the government took on the responsibility of paying private school teachers' wages. In return, the private schools agreed to accept the minimal requirements of the national educational system.
Under the new program, there would be stricter requirements. Private schools would have to accept government appointees to their administration. A school could be opened or closed only if the government approved. And private schools would be required to enroll only students from their immediate vicinity; previously they could accept students from all over the country.
Still, the principle of private schooling would remain. The school could choose, as Education Minister Alain Savary put it, to emphasize its ''spiritual, intellectual, or athletic character.''
How much of the government's plan will be enacted remains unknown. The government hopes the Roman Catholic Church will negotiate, and there are now some signs it may do so. The church plans to announce its own proposals sometime in January.