France's Socialists put schools on `back to basics' course

When Jean-Pierre Chev`enement became education minister last July, his reputation as a left-wing radical promised drastic change. He has turned French schools upside down -- but to the delight of conservatives.

Not only has he made peace with the private, predominantly Roman Catholic schools, but also he has rejected the liberal philosophy that dominated French education for two decades. Chev`enement has introduced curriculum changes that reinstate the classical virtues of ``merit, effort, and patriotism.''

``It's a turning point for the left,'' says Philippe Barret, an adviser to the education minister. Barret explains that the educational shift follows earlier shifts by the Socialist government toward a more market- and profit-oriented economics policy. ``For the first time, we are realizing that standards are necessary.''

Old-style Socialists are horrified by the educational changes -- perhaps even more than by the economic shifts. Socialism has deep roots in the school system -- more than half the Socialists in the National Assembly are teachers or former teachers -- and Chev`enement's actions have prompted a nasty public dispute within the ranks.

``A conservative wind is sweeping much of the Western world,'' said Alain Savary, Chev`enement's predecessor at the Education Ministry. ``But it is blowing with more gusto in France than in neighboring countries.''

Parents and conservatives, on the other hand, are delighted. It is not hard to understand why. Before 1968, French schools were strict and disciplined. The student revolt loosened them up, too much for many. In recent years, a cluster of books have appeared with titles like ``The Massacre of the Innocents,'' which shocked French parents by declaring that children were leaving primary school illiterate.

``Parents are crying out to see their children work,'' says Patrick de Carne, an official of a Roman Catholic parents' association. ``Chev`enement has realized it.''

Mr. De Carne and other conservatives are amazed that Chev`enement picked up on conservative ideas.

As minister of industry and research from 1981 to 1983, Chev`enement angered businessmen by intervening constantly in their affairs. When President Mitterrand decided to change economic gears, he fired Chev`enement.

His return as education minister came as a great surprise. The country was in the throes of a war over private schools that had resulted in mass demonstrations bringing perhaps a million people out onto the streets.

``When Chev`enement came to power, we were very, very worried,'' Mr. De Carne admits. ``But the results show that he has put aside his political preferences.''

Chev`enement says his conversion is not so strange as it sounds. The left's long crusade to eliminate the private schools had simply become too divisive an issue.

``We had to get on to the real work,'' explains Barret.

Pragmatic observation also accounts for the ``back to basics'' crusade. Chev`enement says his stint as minister of industry and research convinced him France was failing to train enough people for a technologically-oriented world. With unemployment soaring to 11 percent, he says better training is essential if youths are to find jobs.

Under the new curriculum, introductions to biology, physics, and astronomy will be mandatory. Instead of studying such themes as transport and food in geography class, students will be required to place on a blank map the main rivers, mountains, towns, and industrial regions of France. And they will have to memorize key dates and explain events. A national exam is to be reinstated for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Left-wing critics describe the reforms as nonsense. They point out that French secondary schools never abandoned their relentless marking system.

``Chev`enement's plans represent a step back of 50 years,'' complains Louis Legrand, the champion of Freudian ideas of child development. ``School must offset the handicaps of a deprived environment, and instead the minister abandons the poorer students.''

Chev`enement doesn't flinch. He says that only by offering a solid, structured education will disadvantaged children receive equal opportunity.

His argument: If a student from a rich family doesn't learn English at school, his parents send him to study in the United States or England. A student from a poor family doesn't have such a chance.

``For this reason,'' he said in a recent interview, ``a solid structured school offers the best chance for all -- and above all, the most disadvantaged children.''

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