The Cabinet minister who gets Mitterrand out of trouble

Jean-Pierre Chevenement, President Francois Mitterrand's new minister of education, is a rising star of French politics. Tall, handsome, looking more like an actor than an intellectual, he is also known to be fiercely ambitious.

When Mr. Mitterrand first came to power, the conservatives dreaded him. Indeed, Mr. Chevenement represented the doctrinaire left wing of the Socialist Party and was often compared to St. Just - the man who inspired Robespierre during the French Revolution.

He is worshipped by followers who admire his intellectual capacity and feared by rivals in his own party who see him as arrogant and opportunistic.

Minister of scientific research in Mitterrand's first Cabinet (of which he was the youngest member), he was sacked in 1983 when Mitterrand began to veer toward more moderate if not outright conservative economic policies. But Mitterrand was deeply indebted to Chevenement, who, along with his young Jacobin intellectual group called Ceres, had decisively helped him in 1969 and in 1979 to beat his rivals at Socialist Party congresses and become the party's leader.

Chevenement's comeback last July when Mitterrand installed Laurent Fabius as his prime minister to replace Pierre Mauroy was something of a sensation in France. And only a few weeks after Chevenement took over the Education Ministry, he once again got his boss out of trouble.

A clumsy attempt by Mitterrand to integrate private schools - many of them run by the Roman Catholic Church - into the public school system (an old Repulbican dream dating back to the 19th century) had led to one of the largest mass demonstrations France has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in late June to express their anger.

Chevenement promptly made a 180-degree turnabout on the issue - agreeing that private schools should be allowed to remain private - while at the same time saving Mitterrand's face by issuing statements so ambiguous that the proponents of public schools say the government remains faithful to its proclaimed ideals while the pro-private school people were happy because they had, in fact, won the day.

Both of Chevenement's parents were teachers. In a talk with this correspondent, he explained how he hoped to reform the French school system and why.

''In today's world, brain power is our main natural resource,'' he says. ''We must make the best possible use of it. Countries like Japan which invest the most in their education are also economically speaking in the lead.''

French education should remain democratic (equal opportunity for all children), he goes on, but not at the price of lowering its standards. While it should continue, as in the past, to dispense basic and disinterested knowledge, it should also be geared toward real life: possible jobs, technology.

''On the one hand, I intend to encourage a return to basics - rigor, discipline, effort,'' he says. ''There is no shortcut to learning. On the other hand, I shall encourage modernization. Our centralized school system has some advantages. One hundred thousand minicomputers will be installed in our schools over the next two years.''

Chevenement favors linking every school to a private enterprise ''so that both can learn and profit from each other.''

A central feature of Chevenement's educational policy, as he describes it, will be decentralization. Toward this end he intends to break the monolithic power of the Federation de l'Education Nationale, the powerful teachers union that groups 1 million teachers and has resisted change.

Chevenement is intent on preserving France's classical heritage - ''the basis of its national identity'' - literature, history, Latin, while preparing young people to fulfill specific tasks in a modern economy.

''If we don't modernize, we will not be able to survive,'' he says. But Chevenement is aware that it will not be easy to attain a delicate balance between gearing studies toward practical and lucrative activities in a technologically oriented world and avoiding the transformation of the school into a purely job training institution.

''The stakes are high,'' he says. ''For the first time since the 14th century our culture is seriously threatened. Of course, we don't want to become the slaves of the Soviet empire. But meanwhile our youth is becoming more and more American in the way it eats, dresses, talks. I happen to believe that between these two giants France has its own, original message to deliver, its own history to preserve. The Japanese seem to be managing to absorb modernity and integrate it into their own cultural tradition. That is the road I hope to follow for France.''

Chevenement admits to having been impressed by the high standards in higher education he found at City University of New York, and Berkeley, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins universities which he recently visited.

Chevenement has two sons aged 10 and 11 and takes time to oversee their studies, guide and counsel them. He also tries to educate himself, pedagogically , through watching their efforts and their progress in school.

As mayor of the city of Belfort near the German border, Chevenement spends every Friday and Saturday there, attempting to improve local services: ''One must take care of one's home base.''

Many in France say that within 10 years Chevene-ment - former leftist dreamer now turned proponent of pragmatism - will be a contender for the country's foremost jobs: prime minister or even president of the republic.

''A man closely to be watched,'' says a key adviser to Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and the leader of the right.

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