The Parc de la Villette, in the north-east of Paris, is one of the grander projects of the Mitterrand years. Set up in 1986, on the site of the old abattoirs of La Villette, at the point where the Canal St Denis crosses the Canal de l'Ourcq, it was designed to revitalise a run-down, slightly sinister area of the capital, using mainly government finance to develop a vast space for exhibitions, theatre, music and other cultural activities; Pierre Boulez conducted a summer school at the Cite de la Musique this year.
The largest of the individual elements is the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, a museum incorporating a planetarium, cinemas, libraries and a congress centre, as well as a hands-on science display, temporary exhibitions and two areas for younger children.
The Cite was, naturally, intended to serve an educational purpose and, as soon as it opened, began to offer les classes Villette, allowing pupils from French schools to spend a whole week here, with their teachers, making use of all the available resources and the museum's specialist staff, while researching projects around a particular theme.
There were, from the start,three guiding principles: the themes were to be multi-disciplinary, covering a range of topics, relating science to everyday life; the students would have to use a variety of media, and so learn the techniques of research; and, finally, the groups would be led by their own class teachers, who would have to attend a preliminary session to familiarise themselves with the Cite and to work out a detailed programme for the week.
The classes have been an undoubted success, with 1,600 groups participating in the nine years since they began. Then, about four years ago, by accident rather than design, the education department responded to requests from Israel and Belgium, and offered the first experimental classes internationales.
Claude Drisch, who is in charge of the project, says the concept of "science in French" developed in response to demand. In retrospect, as with so many good ideas, it has a sort of inevitability.
Like their French counterparts, foreign pupils come to La Villette and study a scientific project, using French as the language of communication. Simple, no? The Cite, which attracts around 1.4 million foreign visitors a year, is committed to developing its international relations. What better way to do this and simultaneously promote the cause of the French language?
The broad principles were the same: a multi-disciplinary project (on health, light, the Earth or the environment) to be studied by groups of 20 to 30 pupils aged between 15 and 18, under the guidance of their teachers.
In the case of the classes internationales, these would be both the normal class teacher for science and the language teacher, and the pupils would be required to have at least three years of French. It was also essential that the teachers attend a preparatory week in the term before the visit took place.
When I went to La Villette in July, Claude Drisch and the head of the education department, Jean-Marie Sani, were in the middle of one of these preliminary sessions, involving teachers from Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany, together with two representatives of the Science Museum in London, who were drawing up an hour-by-hour timetable for the groups they were planning to bring here in the autumn term. In all, La Villette already has bookings from 41 foreign groups for the coming year.
The visitors finance themselves, either through sponsorship or otherwise, and the budget is something else that has to be worked out carefully in advance; the Cite has agreements with three student hostels and can advise on other places to stay. Moreover, it would be "criminal", Claude Drisch believes, to bring young people to Paris, perhaps for the first time, and show them nothing but La Villette, so tourism is built into the timetable.
Not that the main purpose is necessarily ignored, even then. "The pedagogical part of the stay is not by any means confined to La Villette," M Drisch says. "It can also include the Natural History Museum, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay..." As an example, Jean-Marie Sani mentions a visit to the Musee d'Orsay to look at the works of the Impressionists, which soon developed into a session exploring the approaches of scientists and painters to the phenomenon of light, the scientific explanation of various effects and the differences in the vocabularies used to describe them: "All this is in line with the aim of multi-disciplinarity and adopts a point of view which is different from that at school."
The two men have tremendous enthusiasm for the project and must in the past four years have acquired a good deal of experience of what is likely to work best with various kinds of students. Of course, the precise programme will depend on the pupils' level, both in science and in French: hence the need for detailed advance preparation by teachers who know the group.
At the end of the week, each project will be presented in the form of an expose, and there are opportunities for follow-up work: Claude Drisch showed me the dossier prepared by one German classe internationale. The benefits are obvious, both for the students' French and for their science: in fact, the more productive the science project, the more persuasive it will be as a means to encourage the pupils in learning French.
Not that the scheme has been without difficulties, because of the wide variations in level between groups and small, but significant differences in national norms and expectations. "It's a complicated business, building Europe," M Sani remarks, and Claude Drisch adds that the classes Villette internationales are "quite easy to plan in advance, a lot harder to carry out when the time comes." But anyone whose immediate reaction, like mine, is to think: "If only they'd had this when I was at school", won't need to wonder whether the effort is likely to prove worthwhile.
* Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Direction Jeunesse-Formation, Departement Education, 75930 Paris.