JUST off a tree-shaded intersection in a quiet, wealthy neighborhood of Paris, behind high walls and a double main gate, Lyc'ee Jean-Baptiste Say resembles a French country manor. An imposing administration building flanked by geometric flower beds dominates an open courtyard. But inside its walls, there is no mistaking that this is very much a French high school: It is serious and austere, with few allowances for frills or gadgets.
When the French government in June adopted an education law calling for 80 percent of an entering class to reach the level of the baccalaureate examination - the country's famous high school graduation test - it made little noise in this corner of a city where success in privileged lyc'ees generally means success in life.
But even here, in the city's professional and old-money 16th arrondisement, where parents fight to get their children into the right schools, Monique Marceau, Jean-Baptiste Say's principal, estimates that there is much to be done before the government's goal is reached.
``Even in this neighborhood, we don't attain that 80 percent,'' says Mrs. Marceau, an elegant woman whose students stand when she enters a classroom. ``Here we're probably not much over 70 percent.''
That fact illustrates how far France has to go before reaching its goal. Just over 50 percent of French children reach the level of the ``bac'' - 36 percent of an entering class actually pass it, allowing them to continue on to university studies. Each year 200,000 students drop out before earning even a low-level certificate.
The children of working-class parents face even worse prospects: only 20 percent reach the ``bac'' in some regions of the country.
Still, there is broad support among parents, educators, national leaders, and business interests for the ``80 percent objective,'' as it is called - and largely for economic reasons.
With the unemployment rate still skirting 10 percent - even as hundreds of thousands of job offers go unfilled - many people are painfully aware that the jobs that an unqualified worker could once count on have disappeared.
A huge increase in the number of high school students - up more than 400,000, or one-third, since 1984 - reflects not so much demographic shifts but reaction to the economic crisis of the late 1970s and early '80s. In the face of double-digit unemployment, more students are staying in school longer because parents and students alike realize that the future is not very bright for an adolescent who quits school at 14.
A commission of national experts estimates the cost of the objective at 60 billion francs, or about a $10 billion increase in spending on education over the next decade. Despite a corresponding increase in national education spending this year, the government anticipates smaller increases over the next 10 years.
``There is general recognition that spending will have to increase,'' says Bernard Derosier, sponsor of the government's education law and president of the regional council in Lille, the capital of France's industrial north. ``But it's going to take an effort from everybody, from the cities and departments and regional assemblies to attain something we agree is indispensable.''
Recruiting enough teachers to meet current demand, let alone future student increases, is another huge cost, especially when low salaries are already fueling a recruiting crisis.
National experts estimate the need for 330,000 new elementary and secondary teachers through the year 2000.
``If the national will is there, the money will be there,'' says Edmond Benayoun, general secretary of the SNPDES, a union of secondary school administrators. ``A more fundamental barrier is that instruction in France remains elitist and encyclopedic. We need to convince teachers of the need to modify curriculum content, and that will not be an easy task.''