France: New faces at the ministry

13th June 1997 at 01:00
A scientist took over from a classicist at the French Ministry of Education last week, following the surprise victory of the left in the general elections.

Like his predecessor, former Latin teacher Franois Bayrou, the new minister for education, geophysicist Claude Allgre, takes responsibility for education at all levels, from nursery to university plus research; Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has also added technology to his portfolio.

He assumes his duties only three months before what is threatened to be a stormy start to the new school year, following M Bayrou's decision to make substantial cuts in the education budget. He also has the task of putting into action university reforms which exist so far only on paper.

M Allgre, 60, has been friends with M Jospin since they used to play basketball together in the late 1950s. During the course of a distinguis hed scientific career he has worked in France and in several American universiti es, and is a member of the United States Academy of Sciences. His researches have covered the sciences of the earth, space, chemistry of the planets and the universe and he has received many American, British and Soviet distinctions; he was awarded Sweden's prestigious Crafoord prize in 1986.

Throughout the course of his scientific career, he has been politically active, chairing, in the 1980s, the Socialist party's group of experts through which he played an important part in the successful presidential campaign of Franois Mitterrand in 1981. He was an adviser to M Jospin at the education ministry between 1988 and 1992.

The new Minister for National Education, Research and Technology has a reputation for straight talking, with a character that has been described as impetuous and provocative. Even before his appointment was confirmed, staff at Jussieu University in Paris - where M Bayrou ordered work to decontaminate the buildings from asbestos - had written an open letter to M Jospin contesting his suitability for the post.

They were incensed about his attitude to the asbestos problem, dating back to an article he wrote last year in Le Point magazine in which he dismissed it as a "phenomenon of collective psychosis" that had changed the problem from a minor risk to a major risk, at a cost of 1.2 billion francs.

Priorities for the new minister concern the approaching school and academic year. He faces the ire of parents and teachers against class closures and the axing due, in September, of nearly 5,000 teaching posts in primary and secondary education, justified by his predecessor on demographic grounds.

The problems faced by almost 30,000 supply teachers, who suffer high unemployment and no job security, are also outstanding, together with the future of ZEPs (educational priority zones), illiteracy and school failure.

Unions in public research - the sector he knows best - have given the new minister a cautious welcome, recalling that the previous socialist government considered research a priority, unlike the recent right-wing administration.

But their support will depend on signs that budgetary cuts and the decline in the number of job opportunities for young researchers will be reversed.

Working under M Allgre will be the vivacious Sgolne Royal, who, though hoping to become President of the National Assembly, was appointed junior minister for schools. She is likely to find herself preoccupied with school violence and reform of the school calendar and timetable.

The 43-year-old graduate of ENA, the lite grande cole for training top civil servants and administrators, worked for President Mitterrand from 1982 until 1988, when she first stood for election, and became environment minister in 1992. She is one of eight women in the 27-member Jospin government.

Another is the new minister for Youth and Sports, Marie-George Buffet, 48,who is also one of the three Communist party members of the new administration.

The three ministers are part of an overall younger team than the last time the socialists were in power, with most of the old guard from the 1980s dropped, including the former education minister Jack Lang. But Lang's predecessor is one of the few to have reappeared in the new government - this time he has returned as prime minister.

Jane Marshall

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