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Le candidat's day out

A lump of coal sparked a lyrical speech from Lionel Jospin, France's former education minister turned would-be president. Anne Corbett accompanied him on a tour of his socialist heartlands.

The Somme, Arras, Vimy . . . the shadow of the First World War hangs heavy over northern France. As does the rain. Lionel Jospin looks set for a gloomy day of presidential campaigning on education.

The minister of education from 1988 to 1992 feels at home, however. His party's activists in this strongly socialist area promise convivial education encounters in the run-up to the first round of the presidential election on Sunday.

At the apprentice training centre at Arras, run by the departement's chambers of commerce, new generations are learning the skills which make French gastronomy exceptional. The 80 accompanying journalists look longingly at the lobster thermidor, and grab what they can of the patisserie.

It is an impressive place. In one workshop the young from famous firms are learning to carve ice. "We train for all France north of the Loire, Paris included," boasts their director. In the car section apprentices work on Renault bodies with the seriousness required when studies are for real. There is great competition to get here. Nine out of ten go straight into proper jobs and the rest follow shortly.

This region has record youth unemployment. In the past, few teenagers stayed on in school. Industry absorbed them. But coal mines have closed, steel, textiles and the fishing industry have been hard-hit. The region now gambles that it can "win the war of intelligence". Numbers taking the baccalaureat are already up to national levels. There are cheers throughout the day for the universities along the coast and in the coalfields which Jospin created when minister.

Nevertheless 25 per cent of the under-25s who are unemployed have been out of work for 33 months. Socialist local authorities - in the region, the departements and the municipalities - with new energy from the Greens, have taken initiatives to open up new job opportunities described as outstanding by researchers.

In Arras's magnificent baroque square there is now a "permanent education centre" set up by a local authority consortium. The girls go pink explaining to le candidat that they are pleased to be able to update their computer skills, but doubt if it will get them more than a "CDD" (contrat a duree determine) or short-term job. Young men skulk round the coffee machines, out of Jospin's sight.

But there are optimists in the corridors. They see Arras as part of a European "pole" thanks to the Channel Tunnel. The centre helps create a demand for people trained in tourism, commerce and language-related work useful in northern France, southern England and Belgium. The untalkative young men are said to benefit in savoir-faire and attitude. An Arras association, the ADAPEP, backs firms which organise training and create publicly-funded jobs for those in greatest difficulty.

The right-wing candidates - Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur - are reserved on the issue of funding for this sort of initiative, but Jospin backs it strongly. His programme highlights opportunities to improve the environment, regenerate run-down neighbourhoods and provide local services including help for the old and the young, and reconditioning household equipment to sell at modest prices.

Later, in an isolated 1960s housing development, social workers, instructors and retired teachers are jollying along would-be bricklayers and their families. "We have to recognise that no horizon will open for the young unless they have work," says the man whom everyone by now is addressing as "notre cher Lionel, notre ami, notre futur president."

Next stop, the small town of Bruay. We are in sight of coal tips and rusting pit machinery. Its schools are twinned with those in south Yorkshire and the district inspired Zola to write Germinal.

A retired miner presents Jospin with a lump of coal. The mayor offers his "cher Lionel", a carafe of regional design to be displayed in the Elysee palace. Jospin, a former teacher, and wedded to the Age of Enlightenment, makes the most of the symbolism. It's a lyrical speech about individuals and society, about the coal which symbolises the dignity of work and brings light, and the carafe which symbolises having fun and the importance of being with others. It is a good metaphor for education too.

By the time we have done another mairie where a youthful brass band plays The Red Flag, all but battle-hardened journalists are imagining Citizen Jospin running all the way to the Elysee cheered by a successful France which has - theme of the day - won the "war of intelligence".

Since his late election as candidate - the socialists had hoped for former European Union president Jacques Delors - 57-year-old Jospin has been criticised for not patting babies on the head and kissing the faithful, in the manner of his main rival Jacques Chirac. His white hair and his double-breasted suits get him labelled Mr Dull. His campaign slogan - "Avec Lionel Jospin c'est clair" - is translated as Jospin has nothing to say.

Education watchers will be moved by his dilemma. Jospin pays a high price for values they rate: lucidity, sincerity, attempts to find honourable and viable solutions. When a minister, he wrote a book entitled L'Invention du Possible which criticised Francois Mitterrand - long before it was politically correct. "In power we learned how to govern. But have we forgotten why?" he asked acidly of Mitterrand's second term.

The book's education section is lucid too, looking at how the minister has to balance local autonomy and national guarantees, the relationship between education and training. And also, crucially, how to cope with the unexpected. In Jospin's case this was a major lycee protest, and the first of the rows over Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school.

Observers confirm that Jospin was never afraid of the unpopularity he would incur in cutting through the demagogy, much of its from big-name intellectuals. On these issues where Chirac and Balladur have got themselves in a muddle, Jospin has got his principles to the fore.

However, as the right-wing le Figaro notes, the three candidates say little and say much the same. They would all uphold equality of opportunity, all want to improve vocational education and the conditions of university life. But elections turn on what is not said as well as what is said. This time, with 40 per cent of the electorate still undecided and opinion polls filling the news, Sunday will in part be a measure of whether any campaign can be educational.

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