Explosive student woes

Marci McDonald June 6 1983

Explosive student woes

Marci McDonald June 6 1983

Explosive student woes


Marci McDonald

It began in April as lab-coated medical students took to the streets, punctuating their strike by letting laboratory mice out of cages and wrapping Paris parking meters in white plaster casts. But, like some new viral strain, the symptoms of the inflammation spread. Interns and clinic chiefs caught the bug, paralysing the nation’s hospitals. Then, as the contagion flared through the whole university system, students in every faculty from Strasbourg in the northeast to Bordeaux in the southwest abandoned their classrooms, infecting their professors who followed suit. Before the public had time to figure out the causes of the epidemic, which had also seeped down to the level of high school teachers, it had taken a turn for the worse. On the Left Bank a nightmare eruption of fire bombs, tear gas grenades and clubswinging riot police on May 6 left 80 wounded and the charred skeletons of cars on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. All of France suddenly shivered with an

ominous case of déjà vu: could this new fever exploding in the Latin Quarter be an updated strain of the May, 1968, disease that attacked the country and nearly brought down the government of then President Charles de Gaulle?

The answer to that nervous and of-

The Socialists' plan to reform the educational system is their most risky attempt at changing French society

ten-posed editorial query has so far been an unequivocal no. Last month’s strikes had neither the same numbers nor the same causes as the student revolt of 15 years ago, which enflamed hundreds of thousands of workers, brought the country to a halt and irrevocably scarred the national psyche. This year only 8,000 demonstrators massed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower

for the major march against the Socialist government’s proposed university reforms. And a knowing fistful of extreme right-wing agitators indisputably provoked that violence hours after the main protest had dispersed.

In the main, however, the current students lack the zeal of their predecessors. Innately conservative, clean-cut and turned out in their best preppy chic, this student generation seems light years from the flower children of the hirsute 1960s who once manned the barricades on the Place de la Contrescarpe, chanting for social revolution. Then, their aim was to overturn the status quo. Now, in these lean times, French students are demonstrating to preserve it. Left-leaning newspapers have trumpeted evidence of the opposition parties’ hands behind the current student marches. But there are slim odds of a May, 1968, in reverse—the right wing chasing out of power the very Socialists and Communists who had once hurled cobblestones against them.

Still, the government of President François Mitterrand is anguishing over the current wave of unrest because it represents such violent resistance against a far-reaching attempt to change the whole anatomy of French society. The government’s long-term blueprint for reforming the educational system tackles the framework of class

and privilege at its very bone and involves risks far beyond those undertaken during the past two years with more general social reforms: nationalization and decentralization projects and the more recent draconian austerity measures. Some analysts caution that if Mitterrand proceeds with his education policies, he may be in danger of provoking the most furious backlash yet to his regime and, with it, perhaps his own downfall.

The Mitterrand government’s first attempt at educational reform when it swept into power—ironically with the largest student vote in history, after the previous regime had lowered the voting age to 18 from 21—attacked the most obvious bastion of privilege. The bill set out to “democratize” the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the grandest of France’s Grandes Ecoles— the elite superuniversities that churn out most of the country’s politicians, administrators, professors, career military officers and captains of industry. But the furore that the proposed legislation unleashed split even the Socialists’ own ranks. As in every government before them, ENA alumni held sway as cabinet ministers and presidential strategists. The government was forced to back off from its original proposal, which would have eased the present rigorous university entry requirements.

That left the government with a watered-down bill that allows candidates who have never attended university but who have served for eight years as municipal or trade union officials to compete for 10 special places to be opened at ENA for the first time in September. But ENA alumni, now larding the civil service, are still in a rage about the prospect of communist union chiefs trodding the sacred halls of their alma mater.

The most explosive educational reform, however, is one designed to pull the remaining private primary and secondary schools into the state’s embrace. The proposed change has brought down the wrath of the Roman Catholic church in France, which sees one of its last powerholds threatened. Although the proposal has reached an impasse, it is the one that could most undermine Mitterrand’s dwindling support. After a noisy round of protests over the proposed change for primary and secondary schools, Education Minister Alain Savary anticipated little fuss over his fuzzy, 68-article bill to reform the university system “modestly.” Eighteen months in the drafting, after 110 depositions and 286 questionnaire replies, the bill ought to have surprised nobody—a fact that has led the government to accuse opposition parties of trying to profit from it now to reawaken

the tremors of unrest in the national consciousness.

The first opponents of Savary’s plan were medical students who took exception to a provision to limit the number of specialists by imposing a stringent sixth-year exam. The government argues that France already has more specialists and doctors than it can afford to train—120,000 physicians in all, double the number of a decade ago, or one for every 400 French people, one of the lowest ratios in the world. But if each faculty has its specific point of contention, there are some fundamental and well-founded objections to the “Savary law.” Intended to make higher education both more democratic and more tailored to the needs of society, it replaces the current rigorous university entrance tests with an elimination exam at the end of the second year which would drastically winnow the number of students allowed to go on to graduation. These in turn would be determined according to both the schools’ ability to accommodate them and the number of jobs available in their chosen discipline. Savary argues that more people will get a broader liberal education before being streamed into technical training. But students protest that mass education will water down the quality of the teaching and devalue their current degrees. Students chafe at

the notion of wasting two years knowing that they have only a slim chance of emerging with a degree. “It’s a little like putting up a one-way-street sign, not at the start of the road but halfway down the block,” said protest leader Xavier Perlaux, an economic management major.

The provision that has propelled professors to join the outcry, however, is an article giving 30 to 40 per cent of the seats on the universities’ governing boards to outsiders. Students and faculty alike see it not only as a plot for more state control of their schools but—at least among the leftists—as a Trojan horse that could lead to bigbusiness control of the curriculum. To the right wing the article is an invitation to Communist trade union leaders to impose their views. Raged one law lecturer: “It is an open door to


In the wake of the uprisings, Savary has retreated slightly on both points, providing ammunition to other critics who lambaste the vagueness of a bill that was meant only as a framework for further educational reforms, which can later be brought into effect piece by piece without parliamentary consideration. “It is,” said Perlaux, “like giving someone a blank cheque.” Once debated, the bill cannot reach the Senate before the fall, and therefore cannot go into effect before then. Indeed, it is that timing that worries the government most. If the student demonstrations wear themselves out in time for summer vacation, as they did in 1968, the return to classes next September could revive their ire and fuel it with riots by workers whom France’s ailing steel and chemical industries are about to lay off. They in turn could be joined by the increasingly angry unions and middle class, frustrated by curtailed summer vacations and hurt by major tax bites at a time when evidence may be accumulating that their sacrifices for the government’s austerity program have not brought the promised results. A volatile uproar in the streets could then force Mitterrand to call legislative elections well before they are scheduled (in 1986) and provoke a constitutional crisis. For that reason the government has gone out of its way to calm the simmering student outrage that has served as the focus for the nation’s discontent. As the demonstrators linked arms to block the Champs de Mars these past weeks chanting “The springtime will be hot, hot, hot,” Mitterrand’s advisers, closeted in the Elysées Palace, have admitted to chills at the prospect that when vacationing students return to their desks—or to the ramparts of their discontent—next autumn, Paris could be even hotter,