Word of Mouth: French revolutionary students tamed by sex, hash and videos

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Happy days

In comparison with the legendary soixante-huitards (the revolutionaries of May 1968), today's generation of French students is usually considered a fairly dull lot, interested only in jobs and money.

But, if a new poll by L'Etudiant magazine is to be believed, they at least seem a lot happier. Nine out of 10 say they get on well with "Maman et Papa". Eight out of 10 profess to be happy with their studies. A similar proportion claims to have little interest in politics.

Their secret? Well, for a growing number at least, it appears to be sex, hash and videos: 38 per cent of them claim to have had their first sexual relationship before the age of 17 - 10 per cent more than when L'Etudiant carried out an identical poll 20 years ago; 40 per cent smoke hash "regularly" or "occasionally", compared with just 13 per cent in 1970; and 50 per cent spend at least some time in front of a TV set each day, up from just 16 per cent 20 years ago.

What a mess

But if the university students are quiet for once, their younger counterparts in the lycees, catering for the last three years of secondary schooling, are not. For the past fortnight, the cry "Lyceens en colere! Y en a marre de cette galere!" ("Lycee students are angry! We're fed up with this mess!") has been ringing around the country. Demonstrations and sit-ins, often backed by teachers, have so far taken place in some 20 towns in support of demands for more teachers, better security, extra classrooms, and a lighter work-load for France's notoriously overburdened baccalaureat students. Earlier this week scattered violence broke out when some 10,000 students took to the streets in Paris. Although total pupil numbers have begun to fall in French schools, those in the lycees are continuing to grow, due to the huge increase in students staying on to take the "bac", the passport to higher education. More than three-quarters of pupils now sit the exam, double the proportion 10 years ago. This has led to overcrowding and staff shortages. Lycee classes of 40 or more pupils are not unusual. Six weeks into the new school year, many are still without a teacher. For the moment, most of the protests have been fairly bon enfant... good humoured and relatively calm. But, whenever France's students take to the streets, French governments tremble. And the movement seems to be spreading.

The macho and the blonde

All eyes are now on Claude Allegre, France's pugnacious education minister. Having cancelled all engagements in order to keep in permanent touch with developments, he has told the lyceens that he sympathises with their demands for better conditions, but that they must have a "little patience" before the reforms, which have already been decided for the lycees, can come into effect.

One of Mr Allegre's more controversial reforms involves the decentralisation of France's 200-year-old, cumbersome, state-managed system of teacher recruitment and transfer, source of much of the staffing chaos suffered by French schools at the beginning of every school year. But the SNES, the powerful secondary teachers' union, is furious, fearing that it will lose much of its grip on France's education system if teacher allocation is taken away from the national transfer panel it now dominates. Monique Vuaillat, the fiery, blonde head of the SNES, has lambasted Mr Allegre as "the worst kind of macho", calling for nation-wide strikes when his plans are put to the cabinet for approval later this month.

Bigger than the Red Army

Four earlier education ministers have tried to reform the teacher recruitment and transfer system, but all have failed. Mr Allegre may prove to be made of tougher stuff. From the moment he took over this traditional bastion of conservatism 16 months ago, he made clear his intention to take on the unions in an attempt to loosen their strangle-hold over the "biggest state-run enterprise in the world outside the Red Army", involving nearly 1 million teachers and some 13 million pupils in over 70,000 schools.

"We must slim down the mammoth!" he cried. An end must be put to the "much too high" rate of teacher absenteeism. Teacher unions "coming into the education ministry and giving orders to civil servants" would no longer be tolerated. And so on.

Many of his parliamentary colleagues, around half of whom are themselves former teachers, are aghast. But, for the moment at least, Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, continues to support his turbulent minister, who also happens to be one of his closest friends.

The Mousetrap

Mr Allegre, who is a research scientist of world renown, likes to describe the vast new ministry of education, research and technology which he heads as the "Ministry of the Future". He is convinced that new technologies are as important for today's children to master as the three Rs. To that end, he has called for all educational establishments, from nursery school to university, to be equipped with computers linked to the Internet. More than 80 per cent of lycees and 60 per cent of "colleges" (covering the first three years of secondary schooling) are already so equipped. In his push for greater familiarity with the new technologies, Mr Allegre has the enthusiastic backing of the Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac - though he clearly has some need of initiation himself. On a visit to a computer centre not so long ago, red-faced officials were appalled to hear the President inquire what a "mouse" was.

Mind your language

France's eight regional languages, long repressed by central government in the name of national unity, are finally to get official recognition and protection. Mr Jospin has announced that France will sign and ratify the Council of Europe's 1992 charter on minority languages, already signed by 18 countries.

Terrified by the onslaught of English on their cherished national tongue, France wrote into its constitution six years ago a new clause stipulating that: "French is the language of the Republic."

Once considered as an insurmountable obstacle to the ratification of the regional languages charter, constitutional experts now believe they can find a way round it. Far more problematical is likely to be how to find time in the overcrowded school curriculum for a regional language in addition to French and the two foreign languages that French children are already encouraged to learn.

John Izbicki is on holiday