A Week In The Life: Claire Laporte - First a street protest, then it's time for homework

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The Independent Online
CLAIRE LAPORTE is one of thousands of French sixth-formers who have been making life difficult this week for the Education minister, Claude Allegre.

Having sent a questionnaire to pupils last year, asking them what improvements they would like to see in their schools, Mr Allege is under pressure to deliver reforms.

Smaller classes, more teachers, improved working conditions, a shorter timetable, better-equipped science laboratories and a greater flexibility in the choice of options are what the teenagers want.

"Nothing has changed", Claire, 16, said, "as far as the organisation and the conditions in which we work are concerned. One might even say things have got worse."

And so, in the great French tradition, pupils across the country, from Arras to Nimes, decided to strike.

Claire is the pupil representative for her school, the Lycee Daudet in Nimes, where the first protests took place.

On Thursday last week she had a rendezvous at her school at 8am with 4,000 pupils from Nimes. Equipped with banners and placards, they marched through the town chanting "Students together! We've had enough of this mess!"

Mess is an appropriate word. Claire says her school at present is like a building site. Work due to finish last month is expected to continue until November.

Plaster falls in the classrooms and the presence of pneumatic drills has forced some of her science teachers to write their lessons on the blackboard, because they cannot make themselves heard above the din.

The demonstration ended at the education authority headquarters, where Claire hoped to have a chance to explain the pupils' grievances. But she was thwarted by local yobs. Using the demonstration as an excuse for violence, they smashed a door of the building and put a stop to any potential discussion. It was very frustrating for Claire and her friends.

Undeterred by this setback, the pupils took to the streets again the next day. Knowledge of their cause had evidently spread, as their numbers had swollen to around 6,000, and they were easily able to block off one of the main boulevards in Nimes.

Unfortunately, the rioters had not been deterred either. They stole clothes from shops and attacked a saleswoman in a store. Four youths, whom Claire was eager to stress were not pupils, were arrested by the police.

Aside from a quick meeting last Saturday with all the pupil representatives from the Nimes area to co-ordinate movements for the coming week, Claire spent her weekend like any other teenager. Her handball team won 22- 20 in their afternoon match. Despite the absence of games lessons at school, due to a lack of teachers, sporting ambition is still alive.

In the evening she went to a leaving party for one of her friends, and spent Sunday catching up on schoolwork.

"My parents are worried about the effect the demonstrating is having on my studies," Claire admitted. "Although they support my reasons for striking, at the end of the day they think my future is more important".

This dilemma is reflected in the stances of the two local parent associations. One supports the protest, the other pushes for a return to the classroom.

First thing last Monday morning, Claire and her fellow representatives had a meeting with their principal and other senior staff. Their protests had not been in vain, it seemed.

A new class is to be created to reduce the most overcrowded ones, with 38 or 39 pupils. The issues of conditions in the classrooms and the lack of science laboratories are not resolved but "it's a start".

This success was somewhat marred in the afternoon as some of the rioters turned up at Lycee Daudet and break several windows. They were angry, presumably, about the arrest of their friends the previous Friday. The pupils and teachers were forced to barricade themselves in as the rioters demanded to see the leaders of the student demonstrations. Claire was scared.

The day got worse as she then learnt that one of her physics teachers was threatening to penalise the pupils who had missed their lessons and assessments. She arranged a meeting with her tutor for the following day to try to sort out the problem, aware that this meant she would not be able to attend the demonstrations planned for Tuesday.

The meeting with her tutor was inconclusive. Claire will have to wait another week to find out whether she will be given another opportunity to do the assessment.

Ironically, most of her lessons on Tuesday morning were cancelled because the other teachers expected, and wanted, the pupils to strike. During her first lesson, for example, Claire and her classmates were told by their maths teacher: "Instead of doing maths exercises, you should be out protesting."

Expectations were high for Wednesday's demonstrations in Montpellier. About 500 pupils from Claire's school made the trip, and joined up with teenagers from the surrounding area.

Their attempt to go to the central square in Montpellier encountered an obstacle, namely the CRS, the riot police. They were told, in a patronising manner, to leave and "go and have lunch or something". Claire was bitterly disappointed that their efforts had led to nothing. "We weren't as well organised today," she confessed, "we crumbled too easily in face of the opposition".

This self-criticism is a little harsh. I remind her that they have been protesting for a full week. "Yes", she perked up, "if there's one thing I've learnt it's that it's definitely worth fighting for what you believe in."

For the next few days life returned to normal, something Claire was evidently looking forward to. "I have a handball practice in half an hour", she said, "it will be nice to forget about the demonstrations for a while."

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