France: It's been a 'plus ca change' sort of year

26th December 1997 at 00:00
The year started with hostility and opposition to the government and ended with opposition and hostility to the government. Only the government had changed.

For Franois Bayrou, education minister in the outgoing right-of-centre government, 1997 opened with teachers and parents enraged at the slashing of school budgets, and the news that the number of jobs on offer for new recruits would be cut by a fifth. Supply teachers were on hunger strike in protest at their working conditions.

Attempts by M Bayrou to justify the cuts on the grounds that the school population was falling went unheeded. Protesters throughout the country demonstrated on the streets - and off them, too, as parents and teachers occupied education ministry premises in towns including Angoulme, Besanon, Tarbes, Saint-Etienne and Rouanne. Sit-ins were held in Parisian primary schools and unions called on members to strike.

In March, an estimated 40,000 demonstrators from all parts of France united in Paris to march against the education cuts and in favour of youth employment.

But then fate took an unexpected turn. Summer was approaching and the government had another year to run. President Jacques Chirac decided to gamble on an early election before the public spending cuts took effect. He lost.

On June 1, voters threw out Alain Jupp's Gaullist RPR-led coalition, narrowly preferring a return to the Left. Former education minister Lionel Jospin became prime minister in a government that included communists and Greens as well as socialists.

In place of the sleek classicist M Bayrou, in stepped eminent geophysicist Claude Allgre, who resembles a genial teddy bear.

M Allgre, formerly M Jospin's chief adviser, returned to his leader's policies. Among his promises were: reversal of the job cuts; priority for the most deprived through a relaunch of education priority zones; a boost for youth employment; more equitable treatment for supply teachers; proposals to tackle violence in schools and increased allowances, including free school meals, for the poorest families. These initiatives are already taking effect, supported by M Allgre's energetic schools minister, Sgolne Royal.

M Allgre has also restored priority for higher education and research, creating new posts after the years of austerity and cuts. But the university reforms that M Bayrou was in the process of introducing when interrupted by the change of government will remain in place.

It was not long before the bear showed he had sharp teeth under the friendly face. A wave of apprehension ran through the education ministry when he announced plans to trim and reorganise the bureaucracy.

Then, as the new school year started in September, the notoriously outspoken minister infuriated teachers by claiming that absenteeism was unacceptably high. A week later he questioned why teachers who have four months' holiday should attend in-service training during term time.

A third matter for dispute concerned decentralisation plans which would affect the system of allocation of secondary teaching posts and which, the unions claimed, would restrict the movement of teachers seeking transfers.

Following their hostility, M Allgre climbed down, announcing in November that he was deferring change at least for a further year.

The education ministry has not seen such action for a long time - and the pace seems likely to continue in 1998, especially since M Allgre recently justified the necessity for so much activity by criticising the education system as "ramshackle". Though decentralisation might be on hold, initiatives are announced almost weekly. The latest are a national debate and rethink on the lyces and a three-year plan to introduce new technology from nurseries to university.

Jane Marshall

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