French protests' legacy. Students win concessions, but divisions opened by dispute will take time to mend
Paris — French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has bowed to student pressure and withdrawn a controversial education reform bill that provoked violence over the past week. But in spite of the students' sense of triumph, the turbulent events have left a bitter legacy in the minds of many and opened deep social divisions that will take time to mend.
Reacting to the worst crisis since taking office last March, Prime Minister Chirac made the concession reportedly at the urging of President Fran,cois Mitterrand and members of Chirac's governing coalition.
French students and trade unionists welcomed the decision. Nonetheless, the students decided to continue their call for a general strike on Wednesday to protest the government's handling of the education issue.
``It's dialogue on the one hand and a stick in the other,'' charged one angry university student of the government's negotiating approach.
Socialist opposition members have claimed that the government failed to control the police, and have used them in a way to discredit the student movement. The violence and extent of the communication gap between the government and the students have shown that education in France is, once again, a flashpoint of social discontent.
The most serious consequence of the recent events was the death Saturday of Malik Oussekine, a student of Algerian origin. His death has aroused the specters of French anti-Arab racism and of uncontrolled police violence. Yesterday, the students observed a national day of mourning and some trade unions held brief work stoppages to protest his death.
The other serious issue raised by events is the government's handling of the crisis. Chirac's response to the protests proved divisive within his own parliamentary majority and resulted in the resignation his higher-education minister.
Critics have charged that the government's clumsy approach was largely responsible for the increasing number of violent incidents that have occurred since Thursday, and served only to widen and further politicize the student protest.
The demonstrations began peacefully several weeks ago when university and high school students all over France opposed proposed educational reforms they said were exclusionary. They said the reforms - which included increasing entrance fees and making entrance requirements to certain universities more rigorous - would make it harder and more expensive to get an education.
But the nature of the protest broadened after a massive demonstration last Thursday, when an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 students marched through Paris against the proposed laws. The end of the demonstration was marred by violence.
The government's first error, many observers say, was its decision to receive a student delegation at the conclusion of Thursday's March, knowing in advance that they would refuse the students' demand to withdraw the reform project.
Thursday's violence shocked the country and angered the students, who have stressed that their movement is apolitical and who say they are demonstrating, essentially, to maintain the status quo.
The police response was decried as excessively harsh. Police shot tear gas grenades directly into throngs of students during Thursday's demonstration, in violation of police regulations. Several students were seriously injured.
Twenty-thousand students marched on Friday to protest the police violence. That evening the government said it would withdraw for the moment three controversial points in the education reform bill. To many, the gesture was too little too late. That same night scores of policemen swept through the student-populated Latin quarter as part of an operation to evacuate students from the Sorbonne. Witnesses said they clubbed passers-by as well as students.
On Saturday, students organized a funeral march. That day, Minister of Higher Education Alain Devaquet resigned. That night the violence continued.
Critical commentators here have called the educational system the great failure of the Fifth Republic. ``Aside from the Algerian war, the major crises that have shaken the country all originated in the breakdown, the impasses in this system,'' wrote Serge July, editor of the Paris newspaper Liberation, in an editorial.
Studies are often not geared to the needs of the outside world, classrooms are crowded, and the system of education for all those with a high school diploma has brought with it a decline in standards, critics say. Each successive French government has tinkered with the system, only worsening the confusion, they add.
Yet the students prefer to keep things as they are, rather than accept the government's proposals, which they say would make university entrance more difficult without providing alternatives for those left out.
The recent crisis has also brought to the fore the role of President Mitterrand. Though his ability to formulate domestic policy has been greatly reduced under Chirac, he has managed to step forward as a national arbiter, motivated not by narrow political interests but by a desire for national cohesion.