MARINA Girondo is depressed. A 20-year-old Parisian history student, she is trying to keep up with the times, she says, trying to stay trendy - yet to do so she claims she is forced to seek inspiration in the past.

Modern books, music, politics and clothes are all ignored by her contemporaries - and rightly so, Marina believes, since they were all worthless. 'Take today's fashion,' she says, casting a disparaging hand over her flowing red skirt. 'It's just a return to the Seventies. It's all scarves and flares. There's no invention, no creativity now, nothing to inspire us.'

Warming to her theme, Marina turns next to contemporary music. 'I listen to things like U2, but that's more than 10 years old, and I certainly don't listen to today's groups. As for writers, my favourite authors come from the 18th century - Rousseau, Diderot, people like that. No one contemporary. Today, there's really a void at every level.'

A few yards away, under the concrete structures that form Paris Jussieu University, Rachel Tronche, 22, and Agnes Bonhomme, 21, are also bemoaning their fate. 'We discuss and we talk, but we always come up against the same questions. The truth is that we don't have any answers,' says Rachel. Agnes adds: 'The politicians have failed, the intellectuals have failed. May 1968 was a failure - there is no longer anything to give you hope, really. We're all doing environmental studies so you might think that we were green. But even the ecologists have been a big disappointment.'

Talk to almost any French student today and this same pessimism emerges: an overriding feeling that they have inherited a society where the questions hugely outweigh the answers. After more than 12 years of socialist government they are disillusioned with the left, but also with politics as a whole. And, like Marina Girondo, they find little cheer in the arts, which they criticise as excessively commercial and removed from their problems.

For the past month, French students have been hurling their frustration at the government in demonstrations that have rocked France and sent the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, scurrying into retreat.

Nominally called to protest aginst plans to cut the minimum wage, these demonstrations have become the focus for a wide range of grievances, voiced by students, schoolchildren and unemployed youths from council estates. (The latter, dubbed 'casseurs' by the press and government, have been a very small minority - only one or two per cent - in the demos, contrary to some reports. Well over half the protesters are students, the rest schoolchildren).

The complaints are are all underpinned by the sense of gloom that has enveloped French youth. To this extent, they are far removed from the tumultuous student revolt that shook Paris in May 1968. Then, the centre of the protests could be found at Paris's Faculty of Letters, where students demanded the right to love, the right to drugs and the right to knowledge. Today, the heart of the rebellion can be found at the University Institute of Technology (IUT), a further education college housed in an unremarkable stone building in one of West Paris's posher districts. There, French youth demands the right to a job with a decent wage.

Students at the IUT follow vocational courses for two years. They have never had a reputation for militancy, but when the government formulated plans to cut the minimum wage for school and college leavers, they reacted like a bull stung by a bee.

Balladur argued that this measure would make it easier for employers to take on young people. One in four aged between 15 and 24 is out of work in France, one of the worst records in Europe.

Yet student leader Fabien Chadeau and his colleagues in the IUT's Student Co-ordination saw the government's plan differently. They felt that they were being threatened not only with unemployment but with low wages as well if they were lucky enough to find a job. It was as though the Government was kicking them when they were already down.

The Co-ordination called the IUT out on strike, contacted other further education colleges, and, almost accidentally, tapped into the profound malaise sweeping through France. Last Wednesday Balladur performed a humiliating U-turn, scrapping his original plans and instead proposing bonuses for companies who employ college leavers. Even that failed to stop the protesters, thousands of whom marched through the centre of Paris on Thursday in a demo which, like its predecessors, ended in violence with more than 300 arrests.

As he sits at a desk in one of the IUT's dimly-lit corridors, Chadeau, a 20-year-old management sciences student, looks anything but the sort of student to bring a government to its knees. Short-cropped hair, neat brown glasses, a dark blue sweater, new jeans and aftershave - he looks like a model of respectability.

And that, to a large extent, is what he is. Like a majority of his colleagues, he still lives (in Paris) with his middle-class parents, who pay for his day-to-day expenses, does not take drugs and does not aspire to a wild social life. 'People here want to work and study hard,' he says. 'We are well supervised, and you can only be absent a few times before you are expelled. We come here because we want a job later, because we have grown up with the fear of being unemployed.

'Don't think that this project is anything like May '68, because it isn't. Then there was a cultural rejection of everything the older generations stood for. Today, our parents understand us and they are also worried. In '68, they wanted out. We want in, we want to be integrated, but we are being refused.'

Outside the Co-ordination's office, is a letter from Euro Disney seeking job applications. It was pinned up prominently on the noticeboard last January, and has attracted not a single piece of graffiti, not a single scrawled insult. Here, there is none of the anti-American sentiment prominent in 1968 - the students know that they could depend on US firms for their jobs.

Fabrice Baillet, a 20-year old business student, would be happy to be employed by an American company. 'As I'm black, my influences tend to come from black Americans. I like rhythm and blues, rap, and my clothes - jeans, trainers, baseball cap - came from the hip-hop movement. The movement has now disappeared but the trainers are still here.'

Like almost all his fellow students, he has taken part in the demonstrations, the first time in his life he has been active politically. 'My father's a lorry driver and my mother's a housewife and I'm the eldest of four children, so I'm the model for my family. My parents are desperately keen for me to succeed. So you can imagine what it's like when the government turns round and says that you'll earn less than the minimum wage, despite having a diploma. It would have meant earning about pounds 420 a month. All my studies would have been for nothing.'

Yet Fabrice, like his friends, is astounded at the scale of the protests that he helped to start. He is aware that as the movement has gathered momentum, it has progressed far beyond the realms of the minimum wage. 'There is a malaise amongst the French youth,' he says. 'We are afraid of the future. But I don't have any solutions. No one has.'

At Jussieu University, the studies are longer and less pressured, and the concerns more abstract than those voiced at the IUT. Yet students from both institutions are linked by their admission that, faced with the complexity of the modern world, they have no answers and, worse, cannot think of anyone who might provide one.

Ask them to name their heroes or their models, and they remain perplexed, unable to reply. Politicians? Good-for- nothing. Musicians? Just out to make money. Writers? Not interested in us.

Indeed, the only cultural influence mentioned with any regularity is The Guignols, a French version of Spitting Image, only crueller. Shown nightly on the subscription channel, Canal Plus, this 10-minute programme has infuriated those it ridicules - principally politicians - but has a cult following among students.

On Jussieu's ugly concrete concourse, Francois looks just the sort of student - black jeans, black shirt, small round glasses - to provide an insider's guide to French university life. What do the students do for fun round here? Francois is grumpy. 'People listen to music, perhaps hard rock more than anything else, but there's no real dominant trend. Me, I'd like to set up a film club here. It's incredible that there isn't one already. Can you imagine in the Sixties if a university like this didn't have a film club? They would have put up the barricades and demanded to see the directors until they got one. Not today. I never really discuss films with my colleagues. We just talk about our studies, our marks, our personal lives. Sometimes we talk about politics but generally I avoid the subject.'

So is there no cause for optimism? Not quite. On the other side of the concourse, Rachel Tronche and Agnes Bonhomme are complaining about the lack of clubs, meetings or debates at their university. Then their colleague, Gilles Niorot, 22, points out that things have changed in the past month. 'These protests have brought us together for the first time,' he says. 'For that, they've been great.'

(Photograph omitted)