The View from Here - France - The president wants the profession to man up

Even in the land of the 35-hour week and the worship of leisure, many women find it insulting to hear the mantra that they are drawn to teaching because it gives them so much time off.

But the bad news for France's female teachers, especially those working part-time, is that, at this late stage of his first presidential term, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to reverse the feminisation of education.

While women can reasonably claim the hours they gain hardly represent free time, since they are often devoted to family needs, it is precisely that ability to juggle busy lives that President Sarkozy's ideas challenge. He wants teachers who can spend the whole day at school, and he wants more of them to be men.

The gender imbalance in teaching is commonplace in the West. In France, the proportion of female teachers in primary schools has risen from 65 per cent in 1954 to 82 per cent today. The rate reaches 91 per cent in private education and the gap is also noticeable, though less dramatic, in secondary schools.

David Cameron also wants change. He makes a direct link to the riots in several English cities this summer: many participants were youths from homes with no male adults and the prime minister believes this void could be filled with male teachers presenting both "strength and sensibility". President Sarkozy may have similar thoughts, but his ambitions have been expressed in terms of a desire for balance and efficiency.

There would be a price to pay, even if it is not clear where this would fit into the French government's austerity drive. One presidential adviser quoted by Le Figaro admitted: "Lots of women become teachers because it's a profession that suits their way of living. They tend to work part-time, which causes many organisational problems. What we want are teachers who are 100 per cent involved, who are better paid but also more present in schools."

Leaving aside horrific, but isolated, recent events - notably the suicide of a disillusioned female teacher who set herself on fire in front of pupils - there is a wider malaise in French education that cannot be blamed on the gender issue. A new study shows that 30 per cent of teachers are demoralised enough to want to change profession. Pay plays a natural part in job satisfaction. Would Mr Sarkozy's proposition, while reducing part-time opportunities for women, at least make men believe that the profession had become more valued?

"It is well known that the fields of employment that become feminised also become impoverished," according to Natacha Polony, an education writer at Le Figaro. "We are in a society that does not care about knowledge. What is valued is financial strength, power, the media."

A socialist government, at this stage a likely outcome of France's presidential and parliamentary elections next year, would normally be more enthusiastic about addressing teachers' grievances.

Perhaps there is still time for the left's thunder to be stolen and President Sarkozy's centre-right to take the lead, even though this would surely mean dipping into a stretched public purse - and risk alienating a number of women.

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