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Pledge of priority zones as poll nears

France. As the French prepare for their general election on Sunday, Jane Marshall finds that the parties' priorities are education, education and ...

Education and youth unemployment are being claimed as priorities by both government and opposition as France goes to the polls on Sunday.

The ruling right-centre coalition - the majority Gaullist party of which President Jacques Chirac is leader - has a six-point education programme presented under the introduction: "We want a school system that teaches citizenship, is open to culture, gets closer to business and integrates all children."

It claims credit for reforms in the past four years at all levels, including the universities where changes will become apparent from the next academic year.

It promises priority for learning basic skills at primary school and "second chance" education for the unemployed and others wishing to retrain.

The socialist opposition says education is its budgetary priority and declares its objective is "first to reinforce Republican education, crucible of integration and guarantee of equality of opportunity".

Among its promises are to favour positive discrimination through educational priority zones, give more support to teacher training, strengthen vocational training and relaunch the university expansion plan introduced when it was last in office.

It has also pledged to create 700,000 "real" jobs to lower the high unemployment rate among young people - one in four aged 25 and under are jobless - but apart from specifying that provision would be split equally between the private and public sectors, there is little indication of where they would come from, and the timetable is at best vague.

It criticises the government's efforts at job creation for the young as a vicious circle of insecurity, trivial jobs and dead-end schemes, despite the huge sums spent.

President Chirac has dubbed this the year of youth employment, and prime minister Juppe organised a youth forum in February to discuss job-creation opportunities.

On Sunday, an average of 11 candidates will stand in each constituency for the first ballot; in the second, on June 1, only those who gain 12.5 per cent or more of the registered electorate's vote will continue.

The final result will be either the current right-centre coalition, or the present socialist opposition headed by former education minister Lionel Jospin - who stood against Jacques Chirac for president in 1995.

The last general election was four years ago when the RPR UDF right-centre coalition roundly defeated the socialist party formerly in government.

However, a different administration was appointed in 1995 when RPR leader Jacques Chirac became president and replaced the previous prime minister Edouard Balladur (who had proved disloyal by standing for the presidency against him) with the present premier, Alain Juppe.

Normally the election would not be due for a year, but President Chirac called it now to avoid what could be a troublesome poll at a sensitive time for the adoption of single European currency.

Education minister Francois Bayrou is an unusual member of the outgoing government, having remained in the same post for the full four years.

But even assuming a victory for the present coalition, as polls last week indicated (no public opinion surveys may be published within seven days of an election), he is likely to move on.

First, the president will probably appoint a fresh government team (at least one present member is facing the axe, and there has been much speculation about the fate of M Juppe himself).

Secondly, at the last big reshuffle, when M Chirac took over, M Bayrou was known to favour a move to another government office and was persuaded to stay on only when promised an extension of his empire to include higher education, research and youth employment.

Thirdly, M Chirac and M Bayrou have not always agreed on the direction education policy should take, with the president lobbing into the arena a number of his own pet schemes, to the irritation of his minister.

One of these was M Chirac's election pledge for a referendum on education - an idea which M Bayrou, who supported Edouard Balladur for the presidency, publicly denounced.

After being reappointed as education minister, however, he found that industrialist and former minister Roger Fauroux had been nominated to head a commission to look into the education system in preparation for a referendum.

Its findings were not acceptable to the minister, Bayrou stymied the report, and there has been no further debate about a referendum date lately.

A second presidential missile was the issue of reforming the school timetable, for which Bayrou showed little enthusiasm.

Suddenly Guy Drut, minister for youth and sports and former Olympic athletics champion who wears the same political colours as M Chirac, was in charge of the dossier, which has appeared as one of the six general election education proposals, along with another of the president's personal enthusiasms - the fight against illiteracy.

Meanwhile, there have been rumblings that M Bayrou has been too busy with leadership preoccupations within the UDF, itself a coalition, to cope properly with the nation's education; he has ambitions to head a central grouping in 2002, and with his university reform now accomplished believes he has accomplished his educational mission.

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