French education crisis sparks big political problems for Chirac

Thousands of French students marched through Paris once again yesterday. But they were no longer protesting proposed educational reforms. They were demonstrating ``against repression,'' in memory of Malik Oussekine, a young French student who died on Saturday after being beaten by police. Preliminary estimates put the number of students marching at between 40,000 and 80,000. Their slogan was ``never again'' to police violence.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac hoped to defuse a growing social crisis this week by withdrawing a controversial education reform bill that provoked massive student demonstrations and violent confrontations with police.

But as yesterday's march showed, by resisting student demands for so long and underestimating the depth of their movement, he may have set in motion a process that will not be easy to reverse. As a result of the events of the past week, the student protest has been transformed from a single-issue movement to a broader questioning of the Chirac government's social program.

It also signals the emergence of the students as a new pressure group in French society. Earlier in the week, the students had called on French trade unions to support them in their protest. Mr. Chirac sought to head off that potent alliance by backing down from the education project.

Abandoning the education reform bill was widely seen here as a humiliating defeat for Chirac, already criticized internationally for his dealings with Syria.

Senior officials close to President Francois Mitterrand have seen it as altering the balance of power within Chirac's fragile conservative coalition. Until now, they say, Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party led the way. But his two other coalition partners, the Union for French Democracy (UDF) and the Republican Party, publicly urged him to retract the law. Their victory may encourage them to challenge Chirac on other issues.

Chirac, conscious of his new vulnerability, chose not to test troubled waters. He has postponed debate until next spring on two controversial new programs that had been scheduled to be discussed in January. The projects included a new nationality code. Another bill proposes privatizing prisons.

``His policy now is not to make waves,'' says Jean Marcel Bouguereau, an editor at the French newspaper Lib'eration.

Chirac's move calls into question the ability of his government to push through social reforms that are in keeping with his liberal, free-market philosophy. His government's attempt to make French universities more selective and increase private funding for them was part of that effort.

Observers here say that the Chirac government has also overplayed its hand on its strong law-and-order platform, which was popular with the electorate when his government came to office last March. At issue is the government's controversial handling of what began as a peaceful student protest movement.

The law-and-order issue proved divisive even within Chirac's own party, with hard-liners urging that the government continue its tough stand. The RPR may now lose some of its support to the right-wing National Front led by Jean-Marie le Pen, who believes the government caved in to student pressure.

Says one French political analyst, ``Voters on the right will see his retreat, voters on the left will see his firmness at the wrong moment.''

Already, Chirac's political rivals are jockeying for position with an eye to the 1988 presidential elections. Mr. Mitterrand has managed to use the situation to his advantage by presenting himself as a ``judge-arbiter'' on the education issue, his sympathies solidly with the students.

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