French Leader Faces School Furor

IT'S the public schools, stupid.

That slogan, adapted from the Clinton presidential campaign's succinct order to focus on the economy, might well be the rule of French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's government these days.

In the wake of a pro-public education rally that brought more than a half-million marchers to Paris streets Sunday, Mr. Balladur is preparing for a full day of ``national consultation'' on Jan. 27 with a broad range of public education advocates. Just how the popular premier handles the historically emotional issue of French public education could determine whether Balladur continues on a trajectory that appears to be launching him for a successful presidential bid, analysts say.

The recent uproar occurred when the Balladur government proposed, and then rather stealthily adopted, a reform to a 150-year-old law limiting public financing of private - primarily Catholic - schools. The law fed public concern that local governments would begin spending more on private schools to the detriment of public schools.

Education leaders, traditionally not of the same political stripe as the conservative Balladur, are determined to use their regained clout after Sunday's march for all the pull - primarily in the form of fresh financial support - it is worth. ``We don't find this kind of balance of power [between the government and education advocates] every six months,'' said one teacher's union leader.

Even before next Thursday's talks with Balladur, the principal education unions are calling for significant ``emergency'' measures to cancel the government's planned eliminations of teaching posts. They would rather boost the number of instructors entering the schools next fall.

SINCE the 19th century, public schools have stood as perhaps the central symbol of the French secular republic, of the principles of the French Revolution - of liberty, equality, fraternity - and of the freedom from the former lock held on education by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the periodic mega-rallies that hit Paris when the public senses the schools are under threat.

A rally was dutifully planned for Paris, but no one anticipated the huge turnout, especially after the French Constitutional Council, a sort of equivalent of the United States Supreme Court, threw out the education finance reform on the eve of the march.

The public outpouring, despite bone-chilling weather, indicates the close association the public makes between the schools and general prosperity, many observers agree. With unemployment in France standing at 12 percent and rising, the French worry that public education, hit by budgetary constraints, social turmoil, and growing inequalities, no longer plays its role as an equal-opportunity social promoter.

Balladur continues to ride high in French opinion polls, with one survey published this week showing the Gaullist prime minister could win the presidency on the first ballot - something that has never happened in the history of French presidential elections by universal suffrage.

Now Balladur has experienced his first significant defeat, in the form of the rebuked education reform law, since taking office last April. At next week's education talks, he will have to demonstrate that he understands not just the French attachment to public schools but also the link the public makes between the schools and economic well-being.

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