Student revolt: France's spring of discontent

Joelle, a third-year student in Chinese at the University of Paris, Jussieu branch, considers herself a leftist. She says she detests the right-wing law students who started protesting last month against a proposed government reform of the universities.

But last week, she joined the law students on the streets of the Latin Quarter and found herself caught up in a night of mayhem, which left some 100 police injured and 113 students arrested.

All accounts blame extreme right-wing groups for instigating the violence. Joelle confirms this. Yet she says the government must realize that 10,000 students on the streets shows that a broad spectrum of young people are frustrated with their education, anxious about their futures, and as a result, scared by the proposed reforms.

Education Minister Alain Savary reports that only 5 out of the nation's 18 universities have been widely affected by the protests. Many students, even if sympathetic to the protesters, have continued going to classes.

But afraid that the student protests might continue to grow or spark a larger revolt with other discontented interest groups around the country, Mr. Savary sat down May 9 with student leaders to try to arrive at a compromise over the proposed reforms.

The bill has become the focus of such loud protest because it highlights student anxieties about overcrowding in universities and about graduating with skills that are not marketable in the job market. With most of the best jobs filled by graduates of the elite grandes ecolesm - schools with a rigorous selection process - universities suffer from second-class status.

Some 800,000 students jam the universities. This forces most courses to be huge lectures. The students receive a primarily theoretical education that does not sit well with employers.

''My classes have 35 or so students, small for university here, but much too large to learn a language in,'' says Joelle. ''And after I graduate, what will I do? Speaking Chinese won't get me a job here.''

The Socialists came to power determined to make some headway on the university problem. They now propose to let all students who graduate from high school enter university, but make them take an exam after their second year. The number of students kept would coincide with the number of jobs available for them when they leave the university.

Both right- and left-wing students reject this proposal. Rightists favor an exam before university admission; leftists reject all such tests as ''anti-democratic.'' But many of the students, saying they are ''apolitical,'' reject the political polemics.

Those who attend one of the few universities that are selective right after high school say the open admissions policy will swamp the institutions with an unmanageable number of students. They fear that the quality of teaching will suffer and that their diplomas will be worth less.

Students already attending ''open'' universities are also upset. They don't like the idea of studying for two years and then possibly finding themselves thrown into an uncertain job market with no diploma.

Finally, the students are scared by the vagueness of the reform bill. The 28 -page draft is little more than a framework for the reforms. Practical application would be spelled out in more than 50 government decrees that are not subject to parliamentary approval. Mr. Savary agrees with this criticism. But he insists that the students are misreading the law's proposals concerning exams after the second year.

The exams will be ''neither general nor obligatory,'' he said last week. In other words, it is possible that not all students would be forced to take them. Only negotiations will decide the final scope of the tests.

The weekly Le Point also reported that Mr. Savary was considering allowing the universities themselves, in some cases, to decide whether they want to implement the reforms. Some selective universities might then be able to continue choosing the students they want before the first year of studies. This shows that the government seems determined to settle the affair before the reform bill is debated in parliament May 24.

Take Joelle. In between protests, she is studying for her exams in case they are held. ''Most of us just don't understand what the bill will do,'' she said. ''But it could open the door to some very dangerous things.''

Even so, Joelle favors reforming the university so that her education and degree would mean more. She knows, however, the government can't afford, in these times of austerity, to put more money in the universities.

So what reform does she want? She says she does not know exactly. ''We're just anxious for the future,'' she concludes.

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