Ministers hope letting pupils leave school at 14 to do apprenticeships will bring jobs and hope to alienated city suburbs. Jane Marshall reports.
The government will introduce apprenticeships for 14-year-olds as part of its response to the weeks of riots that have shaken France.
But critics say the new "junior apprenticeships" - which aim to stop low-achievers dropping out and give them a path to employment - would effectively lower the school-leaving age and breach the principle of comprehensive lower secondary education.
The violence started in October in a poor Parisian suburb, after two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted in a substation while reportedly hiding from police, and has spread to cities across France.
Prime minister Dominique de Villepin declared a state of emergency last week and told MPs that, once public order was re-established, their responsibility was "to make these difficult areas like places elsewhere ...with the same public services (and) the same opportunities".
Neighbourhoods suffered unemployment, ghettoisation, lack of respect and a "sense of oblivion" aggravated by difficulties of integration, he said.
Schools were confronted with "absenteeism, indifference of some parents and aggressive behaviour by certain pupils". The prime minister promised to strengthen school support for pupils in difficulty, a measure which would require a "relaunch of priority education".
However, he will have to succeed where previous initiatives in deprived areas have failed. Education priority zones were introduced in 1981 to focus resources in the poorest areas to raise standards. However, the zones' GCSE-equivalent pass rate is only 67 per cent compared with the national average of 79 per cent. An official report in September concluded that the zones had had "no significant effect on pupil success".
More controversially, Mr de Villepin said that pupils should be able to take up an apprenticeship at age 14 rather than 16, when compulsory schooling ends. About 15,000 children under 16 have dropped out altogether, and each year 150,000 teenagers leave school with no qualifications and no real chance of finding a job.
Education minister Gilles de Robien said the system would preserve links with school so teenagers could switch back if they wanted to. He said an apprenticeship was a route to skilled, paid employment, and that a year after completing an apprenticeship 80 per cent of young people had found a permanent job.
Existing work-based "pre-apprenticeship" schemes, which alternate workplace training with lessons in school, are followed by about 8,000 pupils aged under 15. The initiative will require a change in employment law which currently forbids under-16s to take up apprenticeships.
Although 83 per cent of respondents in a poll in the Parisien newspaper approved of apprenticeships for 14-year-olds, teaching unions denounced the plan.
One said that the proposal would re-establish an inferior educational route abandoned 30 years ago; while another condemned the idea as "lamentable".
The government was "accentuating social selection and permanently condemning young people most in difficulty to exclusion".