French youths' far-out garb belies sentiments at home
France is deeply concerned about its youth. Walk in the yard of any high school and one sees why. The lyceens hanging out in small groups look defiantly at the outside world. Their anti-establishment clothes reflect the same mood: sweaters several sizes too large, tight jeans, or loose ''grandfather-style'' pants. The boldest adopt the latest punk style and glare at everyone else.
French adults' concern is not new in a country where adolescence is almost treated as a malaise requiring a drastic cure. Nor is such a visible gulf between two age groups or a growing number of adults complaining that ''young people don't care about anything anymore'' a unique sign of the times.
What is more surprising is the amount of attention recently focused on French youth, with the news media devoting numerous polls and reports to the issue of youth in France. Action by the Socialist administration toward youth is especially noteworthy.
First, a large campaign aimed at a better understanding of teen-agers was started last July by French President Francois Mitterrand. At a UNESCO conference Mr. Mitterrand proposed that the French declaration of the rights of man be posted in every classroom in the country to better acquaint youth with this old republican ideal.
Then, last September, Education Minister Alain Savary and Defense Minister Charles Hernu agreed to allow Army representatives to enter schools to speak to students about the functions and objectives of the military. In addition, the minister of consumer affairs prepared a program for students on how to become ''responsible consumer-citizens.''
Schools throughout the country were sent repeated memos from the Ministy of Education expressing a need to stress values such as ''morality, duty, civics, and patriotism.''
Yet curiously, the alarm reflected in many an adult face or in a spate of government acts appears to be at odds with the beliefs and ideals of today's French youth. In a recent poll of young people from different backgrounds, the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, along with a TV station, found that youths between 15 and 20 years of age are far from having lost the traditional values cherished by many of their parents.
Conversations with young people and the recent polls reflect the growing importance of traditional values such as strong family ties, marriage, and work in their lives. Ninety-three percent of those polled said that family is very important for them.
''Who says one can't communicate with his parents,'' says Helen, the 18 -year-old daughter of a retired police officer. ''They are my best friends.'' The generation gap may have been a reality several years ago, but it seems to be narrowing fast.
A deep belief in fidelity in marriage accompanies this renewed commitment to family: 76 percent of those questioned said they believe married persons should be faithful.
Despite recent riots and protest by university students, most French youths today are less concerned with politics than in the recent past. In a March poll, 71 percent said politics does not play a large role in their lives; in 1981, 62 percent held that view.
As Eric, a 19-year-old law student from Dijon, explains: ''I don't want to change society, even if I know it's not perfect. The first thing I need to do is get a job in the profession I've chosen. I can't afford to fool around with politics.''
Distributors of political tracts who so often hang around French high schools are, whether leftist or rightist, no longer welcomed by most students. Evelyn, who works in Burgundy as a volunteer for a leftist movement, remembers being insulted by the students as a bourgeoise with nothing else to do.
Nor are today's youth the ''I-don't-care-generation'' many adults consider them to be. Their mild pessimism might be interpreted by adults as lack of energy, but for most French youths it is rather a reflection of their concern over a clouded economic future.