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World Perspective | France

Class Woes Test Students' Patience

Thousands of teens protest overcrowding, a teacher shortage and overloaded schedules.

October 16, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — High school students in France are revolting.

Since the beginning of this month, tens of thousands of teens across the country have been protesting overcrowded classes, the shortage of teachers, overloaded schedules and old, ill-equipped and unsafe schools.

On Thursday, an estimated 500,000 students marched in more than 340 locations throughout France. In Paris, where 30,000 turned out, 150 young vandals overturned cars, smashed telephone booths, set a newspaper stand ablaze and looted stores and cafes. Five people, including two police officers, were hurt and 110 arrests made.

The violent acts of a few ended the Paris march early. The vast majority of marchers wanted nothing more than decent conditions in their schools.

"Sometimes there's 40 of us in a class, and we don't have enough tables," said Mathieu Lecornu, 16, from Taverny outside Paris. "The cafeteria is dirty. It's designed for 200, and there are 600 of us. There's also a lack of equipment. In Spanish, we haven't had a teacher since the beginning of the year."

The marches, sit-ins and protests seem to have started at a public lycee, or high school, in the southern city of Nimes and spread rapidly.

In France, where education is a responsibility of the central government, officials were caught napping at the onset but now are paying attention. In 1968, discontent among university students was the catalyst for social upheaval that almost brought down the Fifth Republic.

"I think there is a real problem in the lycee," Education Minister Claude Allegre has said. But he also has said, "I'm not a magician, and I can't give everything right away."

Almost 53% of public high school students attend classes of 30 or more; in private schools, the figure is less than 33%.

According to Allegre, that shouldn't happen: The ministry's $63-billion budget is lavish enough in theory to afford one teacher for every 11 students.

The problem, the minister says, is "archaic" management that since the days of Napoleon has kept decision-making power--including the hiring and transfers of teachers--in Paris.

This autumn, not enough physical education, life and earth sciences and Spanish-language teachers were put on the payroll. There are plenty of candidates to teach philosophy, but three-quarters of them are in Paris and don't want to leave the capital.

As a result of administrative snafus, 1 1/2 months into the new school year many classes are still without teachers.

As for the course load, though France's Socialist-led government wants to enforce a 35-hour workweek for adults, some lycee students now sit through more than 40 hours of classes a week. Homework is extra.

To cool tempers in the lycees, Allegre has taken a number of quick steps, including ordering regional subordinates to hire more teachers, if need be by dipping into the pool of candidates who haven't yet passed their qualifying exams.

The root cause of the dissatisfaction is simple: There are more students in the lycees than ever. More than 75% now stay in school long enough to take the baccalaureate exam, twice the proportion of a decade ago. That diploma allows the bearer to enter university and is a requirement for the best jobs in France.

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