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Blurring through a political minefield

Jane Marshall looks at the education policies of the presidential front- runners and asks 'where's the meat?'

All the leading candidates in the presidential election insist that education is a priority - but they are all vague when outlining their policies on this volatile issue.

The front runner, Jacques Chirac, has promised a referendum but has failed to spell out what questions would be asked.

The first round of voting takes place on Sunday and only two candidates will go through to the second, decisive vote on May 7. Only three of the nine who are standing have any chance of getting that far.

Two, representing the Right, hail from the same political party, the neo-Gaullist RPR. Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, has already twice stood unsuccessfully for the presidency. His rival Edouard Balladur, proved to be an unexpectedly popular premier and decided to try for the top job himself. But his previous, apparently unassailable, ratings have fallen in recent months after displays of indecisiveness.

The third possible winner is Socialist Lionel Jospin, a former education minister and college lecturer. Although a man of undoubted integrity, he lacks charisma and is saddled with a scandal-tainted party.

Which two of the three survive will partly depend on how much potential support is siphoned away in this Sunday's round by the minority candidates, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen of the extreme right National Front and the genial Communist Robert Hue.

Education takes the biggest share of France's public expenditure, and is potentially a political minefield. Last year, after vast protests, the government had to abandon plans to increase state finance for church schools and to introduce a training scheme that would have paid young people less than the minimum wage.

This year, strikes and demonstrations hit schools from nursery to university level as education unions, backed by parents and pupils, protested against the government's policies.

However, M Balladur is campaigning on his educational record, pointing to reforms under the "new contract for schools" programme launched last year.

If M Chirac wins, he has promised a public debate on educational problems and to consult the electorate by referendum during 1995.

However, he has so far declined to elaborate on what this might ask, except to say that a wide-ranging commission would be appointed to set it up.

M Jospin has promised to re-establish the "budgetary and political priority to education" which he claims existed when he was minister, including restoring cuts in higher education programmes.

Opinion polls have shown that many voters remain undecided over which one of the top three they would choose. The don't knows include a disproportionately high number of the nearly six million young people aged under 24 who are voting for the first time in a presidential election According to a survey carried out for the monthly Le Monde de L'Education, the young attach great importance to politics and the potential ability of politicians to change society, which they rate way above that of teachers, intellectuals or leading businessmen. But they are disillusioned with the politicians on offer.

Only 18 per cent "preferred" Jacques Chirac, compared with 17 per cent for Lionel Jospin and 11 per cent for their previous favourite, Edouard Balladur, while 39 per cent opted for "no one".

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