A Class-Size Struggle: High School Students Go on Strike in France

They took to the streets this month to demand more teachers, better facilities. Officials try to find more money for education.

Ever since the term began last month, the mood at Emiland Gauthey high school has been sour. Week by week, students say, discontent with a harsh new disciplinary code has been brewing.

In this provincial town 200 miles southeast of Paris, this was the flashpoint that sparked the sort of high school strike that has been sweeping France for the past two weeks. Prompted by the example of their peers in other towns, the students at Emiland Gauthey walked out of class.

"They came up here, burst into the school, and ran through the corridors shouting at us to join the strike too," recalls Marek Vuiton, a student at another school in Chalon. "So we all had a meeting outside in the street to find out what it was about." From such small events in towns and cities across the country, a major protest movement has developed that has brought hundreds of thousands of students into the streets over the past week, demanding better conditions and better teaching.

This movement is far removed from the glory days of French student rebellion 30 years ago, when college and high school students, rallied by revolutionary slogans, battled police in the streets.

Today's protesters are younger - those under 18 years of age need a note from their parents allowing them to skip class if they want to take part in the strike - and they are focused on more immediate problems.

"In 1968 they wanted to re-make the world. But in 1998 we just want to remake our schools," explains Ebtissem Mechali, a member of the national strike coordinating committee.

Student demands

That is clear from the list of demands that Mr. Vuiton and his friends at Pontus de Thiard high school were making as they staged a sit-in in the center of Chalon on Tuesday afternoon.

In letters that they later mailed to the local authorities, the students called for a limit of 30 pupils per class (a limit of 20 in language classes), hiring a maintenance worker to keep their school in better repair, a cut in lesson time, and new chairs and desks, among other things.

These are issues that motivate students in Chalon, but they are only loosely based on the demands being made by the strike movement's national leadership in Paris.

Those include a greater student voice in school management, more staff, and more spending on schools. [Education Minister Claude Allegre, who has declared himself in full agreement with the pupils' demands, was expected to announce that he had squeezed some extra funds for schools out of the 1999 budget during last night's budget debate in parliament.]

"We try to stay in line with what is going on up there" in Paris, says Clemence Thielland, an energetic teenage strike leader with a single lock of hair growing from her close-cropped head.

"But we haven't had any contact with anybody outside Chalon except through the media," she says.

In the capital, a national coordinating committee for the strike emerged last weekend, made up of delegates sent to Paris by ad hoc committees that had sprung up in different towns around the country.

In Chalon, for example, "there were no leaders at first," Vuiton says. But on the first day of the strike 10 days ago, as students milled around outside the mayor's office debating what they wanted and what to do about it, "a few people emerged," he says.

At Pontus de Thiard, they turned out to be the student representatives on the school's administrative board - known and elected by their peers.

Problems organizing

Nobody from Chalon went to the national meeting ("We were not organized enough," says Ms. Thielland), but many of the delegates from other towns were dismayed to find that a high school students' union, the Independent High School Students' Federation (FIDL), appeared to be running things.

The FIDL, whose membership accounts for only 0.1 percent of the high school population, is close to the ruling Socialist Party, and its members were the only strike representatives given an audience by Education Minister Allegre after last week's mass demonstration.

Determined not to be coopted by any political grouping, a lot of provincial delegates went home to found their own autonomous regional committees, returning the movement to its spontaneous, and somewhat disorganized, roots. FIDL leaders deny any intention to take over the protest for its own purpose.

"This is a spontaneous, apolitical, and peaceful movement," insists Ms. Mechali. The splits "are normal," she adds. "We are high school kids, not professional organizers."

That is certainly true of the students in Chalon, where politics hardly interests anyone at Pontus de Thiard. The only political organization with any following there is Ras le Front, a group formed to combat the influence of the extreme right-wing National Front Party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The students' lack of experience in political organization was clear last week, says Vuiton. "We wasted a lot of class time because we were not structured at all," he explains. "And we can't afford that - I'm in my last year, and I've got school-leaving exams next summer."

Going to class and protests

This week, though, the strike went more smoothly; at Pontus de Thiard students voted to attend class on Tuesday morning, despite the national strike call, and to demonstrate only in the afternoon.

The demonstration, gathering around 1,000 teenagers, passed off without incident.

On Wednesday, Cecile Dalery, a student representative on the regional educational authority, The Academic Council for High School Life, went to the regional capital, Dijon, to hear the authority's proposal for a new committee in each high school to give pupils a greater voice in school affairs. She does not think much of the idea.

"What good is another committee, and more meetings like that?" she scoffs. "These protests have shown that we don't need them - we can organize ourselves."

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