Jack Kenny finds that the home of both the TGV and Minitel still manages to harbour a distrust of the computer.
Let's get the myths out of the way. The Minister of Education cannot look at his watch at 15.00 and say that all 10-year-olds will be on page seven of their Latin primer. The French national curriculum does not have the force of law. All French schools are not using Minitel (also known as Teletel, the teletext facility in most French homes); very few are. French trains are not always twice as fast as ours.
The big French prestige projects like the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse) or high technology centres like Sophia Antipolis near Nice and Futuroscope near Poitiers suggest this is a country very concerned about technology and the immediate future. European development of the Internet's World Wide Web has recently been transferred to France. IRCAM at the Centre Pompidou in Paris has pioneered the development of electronic music. The plans for a national library system are the most exciting in Europe.
But there is something in the French education system which distrusts the computer. The argument goes that practically all the people who are in powerful positions in the computer industry today did not have any contact with computers when they were being educated, so why should the country go to great expense to put massive numbers of computers into schools? Success will come from concentrating on the basics, inculcating flexibility, preparing students to work in all kinds of environments and situations.
The French government realises the importance of information technology and many argue that the Americans' main rivals in Europe will be the French. There is a strong cultural identity in France. It was the French who argued for a quota system to arrest the domination of Hollywood and to encourage a market for European films. The French are worried about the Internet, dominated as it is by the English language. They hope they will be able to inject a French flavour into the proceedings. However, the real fuel of the network will be the organisation and the technology and it is there that the French hope to concentrate.
The last big IT initiative for schools was 10 years ago: Informatiques pour tous (Computers for all). This was similar to the push to put BBC computers into British schools. In France they used the Thomson computer. The initiative was backed up by training for teachers. CD-Rom has been introduced into half of French senior schools, but the software, of course, has to depend on the discs produced in France.
At present there are no big IT projects for schools but there are a few interesting small initiatives. There are some Internet schemes in Dijon, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Strasbourg and Paris. Edutel is being developed to follow on from Teletel. Areas such as Futuroscope near Poitiers have schools called lyceees pilots: flagship schools, institutions where new approaches can be pioneered. Claude Gueguen, director of Eurocom at France's Sophia Antipolis, is responsible for a "tele-teaching experiment" which he is conducting over the BETEL (Broadband Exchange over Trans-European Links), in which professors located in Lausanne, Switzerland instruct students located at Eurocom's school in the south of France.
Some French educators argue that the real educational mission is "to produce leaders rather than trailers". They argue that what some European countries are involved in is "just-in-time training" rather than education.
Anne Marie Le Page has taught in a number of schools in the Dijon area. "Last year the Minister, Francois Bayrou, promised that there would be an initiative to encourage the use of IT. It has not happened. There is no sense of urgency about this.
"Compared to some other European countries we are not as well equipped. The idea of using computers across the curriculum has not taken root here. The average teacher is middle-aged, very traditional and does not take kindly to revising methods that were handed down to them. The position in the `colleges' (11 to 16) is that there are few computers. In the classic `lycee' (15 to 18) there are even fewer.
"There are technical lycees where there is an emphasis on technology, and it is in these places that you will find IT, but used for practical purposes rather than to enhance learning. " Pauline Minnis was an advisory teacher in England and is now living and working in the south of France. "My three children attend the ecole primaire. There is not one computer in the school. I know you cannot generalise, but I have been in many more and they are little different. There is nothing like the emphasis on IT that there is in schools in England."
France is taking the Internet seriously. Bernard Platel, education officer at the French Embassy, makes the point that "80 per cent of all the material stored on the databases accessible through the Internet throughout the world is in English. That is a worrying figure for France. Maybe something like that will energise people." Platel says that some teachers in France have what he calls a "cultural block - they are diffident about technology. There are some parts of the curriculum where IT is compulsory, but not enough."
The government rhetoric suggests that France is poised to lead Europe into the information age. The reality is that this will be hard with teachers who are not IT literate and a population that only sees IT in its most pragmatic terms.
However, the citizens may soon realise that some of their most cherished beliefs will be challenged in the new information age. Politicians in England worry about a common currency; IT developments mean that France could well face a common language.