IRENE is one of France's best and brightest. She just graduated from the 'Ecole Normale Sup'erieure, the country's equivalent of Harvard or Yale. There she studied compulsively for six years and passed the agr'egation, the nation's most competitive examination. She's not an investment banker. She isn't clerking for a judge, or designing computer software for a multinational corporation. Irene teaches history to 15-year-olds in a lyc'ee, or public high school.
``I'm really privileged,'' Irene asserts. ``With a class load of 15 hours a week, I can study Czech at the university, plus collaborate with a review in my spare time.''
Attracting top-notch teachers may be difficult in the United States, but in France the market is saturated. Government control over the educational system ensures that a high priority is given to finding qualified specialists. A solid 18 to 19 percent of the national budget is devoted to the Ministry of Education - as much as goes to the military. Most of this money is used to pay personnel.
For the intellectual elite, high school teaching has traditionally been a rite of passage. Former President Georges Pompidou passed the agr'egation, as did Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aaron, both distinguished philosophers. Most of today's well-known intellectuals, such as Bernard Henri-Levy or Jean- Fran,cois Revel, are also members of the restrictive club, although they know longer teach in the lyc'ees.
So Irene's choice is not surprising. When she was studying at the 'Ecole Normale, she received a hefty monthly stipend, nearly equivalent to a primary school teacher's starting salary. After she passed the agr'egation, she automatically entered the work force.
As in the American university system, teaching jobs are tenured in France, offering secure lifelong employment and excellent social security benefits. The money is respectable, even if starting salaries average at least 30 percent less than in the private sector.
Entry into the profession is not easy. Scholarly excellence is the sole criterion in awarding positions, and capacities are tested in a competitive examination known as the concours system. Only 1,500 students pass the agr'egation each year.
The elitism starts early. Only a third of any given kindergarten class eventually graduates from the lyc'ee; other students are shifted to technical or paraprofessional schools. Another 10 percent completes the mandatory schooling without any diploma or professional training.
The fortunate few who succeed and eventually become teachers follow an old-fashioned lyc'ee program. It includes a solid grounding in the classics and three foreign languages, along with math, sciences, philosophy, history, and geography. The lyc'ee experience culminates with the baccalaur'eat degree, which is necessary to enter into the free public higher education system.
``We are studying 17th-century authors like Corneille, Pascal, Moli`ere, Balzac, this year,'' explains Laure, a 15-year-old suburban lyc'ee student. ``I have classes six days a week. We have to write essays about the objectives in literary oeuvres and that sort of thing. It's really serious stuff!''
While many American parents may dream of such a high school preparation, the system suffers from some serious disadvantages.
Parent associations and the teachers' union are concerned because teachers are chosen for their intellectual capacities, not their teaching skills. Lyc'ee teachers can arrange for teacher training periods - but only after having passsed their concours tests.
``I wouldn't have chosen the concours system if I wanted to form good teachers,'' says Gwenola, a young math agr'eg'e now teaching in a lyc'ee. ``Three days of written tests followed by two days of orals cannot properly reflect the depth of one's capacities, let alone one's ability to be a good teacher.''
But the concours system enjoys strong support from the government and the country's largest and most powerful union, the National Federation of Teachers (FEN).
``A national test assures us that objective standards of selection are being applied,'' says Jean-Yves Cerfontaine, FEN's national secretary. ``It's our guarantee that the hiring process is democratic.''
Regardless of personal satisfaction with a given post, all concours winners owe the state 10 years' service as teachers. Formal contracts are signed. In the rare case when a contract is broken, sometimes another civil servant post can be found in exchange, allowing for easy transfer. 'Ecole Normale students must pay back their stipends in cash.
Not surprisingly, few leave the profession. Enrollment in the 'Ecoles Normales remains stable, attesting to the system's continued ability to attract top candidates. Many intellectually oriented youth find that they have few other career options in the rigid French social system.
University and state-run academic research institutions are off limits to all but a tiny minority. For those in the social sciences or the humanities, private-sector jobs are particularly hard to come by. So teaching remains one of the few gratifying professions available for many of the most gifted.
But at least teachers are satisfied.
``One day a student asked me why I teach history,'' recalls Irene, ``since I could have done anything. I explained that I'm devoted to studying history. There's just no place else for a young historian in France today.''