Tough call for new minister

9th April 2004 at 01:00

France's new minister of education and research faces the difficult task of restoring order and calming tempers in all sectors of the educational community, as well as completing a nationwide debate on the future of the country's education system.

Francois Fillon, 50, an experienced politician who is ranked number 3 in the new government, was appointed last week in a reshuffle that followed disastrous results in regional elections for President Jacques Chirac's conservative UMP party.

He replaces Luc Ferry, one of several ministers in the previous cabinet drawn from "civil society", whose two years overseeing the education system were marked by the strongest teacher protests for many years.

These were provoked by cuts in budgets and posts as well as policies to devolve some educational responsibilities to the country's regional authorities. It is widely believed that these issues were aggravated by Mr Ferry's lack of political experience.

Mr Fillon moves to education from his previous job as minister for social affairs, employment and solidarity. His public-sector pension reforms were among grievances that contributed to last year's teacher unrest.

More demonstrations against a 30 per cent reduction in the recruitment of new secondary teachers were due to start this week. One particularly explosive issue in the protests is a 40 per cent cut in posts for newly-qualified PE teachers.

Other problems facing Mr Fillon include deadlocked university reforms and a research crisis. Laboratory heads resigned their administrative duties and nearly 320,000 scientists and supporters signed an internet petition in protest against frozen research funds and axed jobs.

Mr Fillon accepted his new post on condition that he would have enough resources to end the dispute. In a presidential broadcast last week, Mr Chirac promised to settle it.

The new minister takes over halfway through a nationwide debate on the future of education - one of Mr Chirac's presidential election initiatives intended to lay the foundations for France's first major educational legislation since 1989 (TES, September 12, 2003). The commission in charge was due to present its findings this week. Some 15,000 public meetings have taken place since the debate was launched last year.

Mr Fillon, who studied law at Le Mans and Paris universities, has a British wife and five children. He became an MP in 1981. His previous posts include minister for higher education and research from 1993 to 1995. Until last week he was also leader of the Pays de la Loire regional authority, which was unexpectedly won by the socialist-led left coalition.

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