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'Get tough' pledge on school drop-outs


CRIME and security, which dominated the French presidential election last month, are again at the forefront of the campaign for parliamentary elections, with promises of more special classes for school drop-outs, a tougher approach to gangs and faster punishments. Voting takes place this month.

Publicity given to the gang rape of a 15-year-old Lyon schoolgirl by eight youths has kept public attention focused on law and order.

In a speech to high school pupils, Luc Ferry, the new education minister, appointed after the re-election of president Jacques Chirac and the resignation of the Socialist-led government coalition, promised "zero, zero, zero tolerance for physical violence" in schools. He blamed trouble in schools on "the progressive and massive rejection of authority which has marked the 20th century. It is progress at a high price."

But the first indications were that Ferry was not proposing any major breaks with the policies implemented by his Socialist predecessor Jack Lang - he had been involved in policy as head of the curriculum council. The priority given to fighting illiteracy is to stay. Attempts to give secondary pupils more flexible courses will continue. Lang's plans to introduce modern languages into primary schools remain.

Xavier Darcos, the schools minister, said the number of special classes for drop-outs would be doubled from 250 to 500 by 2004 and that there would be "immediate sanctions" for "the first transgressions". He did raise some eyebrows among the teaching unions by appearing to suggest that school heads and inspectors might be given more autonomy.

The Socialists, still recovering from the failure of their former leader Lionel Jospin to qualify for the final round of the presidential election, have pledged to make education and training their "priority investment" and provide the necessary funding. They have questioned whether a right-wing government would find the money and suggested it might discriminate against schools in trouble.

Some say part of the reason for Jospin's poor showing in the first round of the presidential election, in which he was beaten by the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the desertion of teachers, traditionally strong supporters of the Socialists. During his time as education minister (1997 to 2000) Claude All gre, a close friend of Jospin, had alienated the profession with his blunt remarks.

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