The View from Here - France - A win for Sarkozy could spell trouble for teachers

Colin Randall

The slow recovery of Nicolas Sarkozy in French opinion polls is troubling news for Francois Hollande (pictured), the socialist candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, who has had every reason to believe in recent months that his passage to the elysee would be a simple shoo-in.

It is also bad news for France's teachers, or the majority of them, who see their interests very much tied to a victory for the pro-public services Left over the cost-cutting Centre Right.

The dying months of Mr Sarkozy's first term of office have been marked by gloomy analysis of the state of French education ahead of the first round of polling this month. Veteran socialist parliamentarian Jack Lang, a former French education minister, was the author of one damning assessment (in the Nice-Matin newspaper) of what has become of the president's lofty promise to pursue excellence in schools. "At the beginning, he seemed to want to give schools back their stamp of legitimacy," wrote Lang. "And what did he do? The complete opposite. He has destroyed a lot."

On Mr Lang's list of crimes against education on Mr Sarkozy's watch are: a reduction of 70,000 in teaching posts; a "plan of impoverishment" forcing shorter weeks but longer days on primary schools; the trimming of reading and writing programmes; and - worst of all in this stinker of an end-of- term report - cuts in teacher training.

At election time, of course, such polemic is routine. But Mr Lang, at the age of 72, enjoys elder statesman status after a lifetime of service to education and the arts. Moreover, his misgivings have some neutral endorsement.

When the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced a highly critical report on French education last autumn, even the Sarkozy-supporting Le Figaro ran the headline "France, champion of inequality in education". The Education at a Glance report found that enrolment on courses for 15- to 19-year-olds fell from 89 to 84 per cent between 1995 and 2009. France was one of the few member countries showing any decline at all, prompting OECD deputy director of education Bernard Hugonnier to describe as "macabre" the finding that 13 per cent of young people were "completely outside the school system".

The SNES teaching union has said that the profession is afflicted by a "deep malaise", which it blames on contentious reforms, job cuts and unrealistic demands and management practices that ignore classroom realities. If Mr Sarkozy's recent rally produces a victory against the odds, he may well take that as a mandate for further reforms.

For his part, Mr Hollande's bash-the-rich, spend-to-invest programme includes a promise to recruit 60,000 teachers - not a huge number, says Nick Hewlett, a British academic whose books include an authoritative study, The Sarkozy Phenomenon, but welcome news to a disenchanted profession.

Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande could hardly have been more dignified, in equal measure, than in their responses to the horrific school shooting in Toulouse last month, including a brief suspension of their campaigns. But their visions for the future of education could hardly be more different.

A majority of French teachers, it seems, hope that the April and May presidential polls, followed by parliamentary elections, will bring approval for the socialists' modest funding boost - and not more of what Mr Lang called "blindly lashing out at an already weakened school system".

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Colin Randall

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