`Girl power' leads student protests through France

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FRANCE WAS treated yesterday to a lesson in student power - and also in girl power. All over the country, it was women of 16 to 18 who took the lead in a day of protest by lycee students.

It was striking, therefore, that the mindless violence scarring the start of the march through Paris was entirely caused by young men: mostly younger teenagers from the "difficult" suburbs who had nothing to do with the lycee protests. Cars were overturned and shops and cafes pillaged in the Nation area of the capital by about a hundred masked youngsters. Eighty- two arrests were made.

The march was cut short by agreement of the organisers and the police to prevent further violence. An estimated 28,000 teenagers in Paris - and a nationwide total of more than 300,000 - made their point, none the less. The national day of action was the culmination of two weeks of protests, which started in Nimes in the south, against overcrowded classes, a shortage of teachers, the cancellation of courses, old buildings and excessive workloads.

The students have already begun to refer to their movement as "October 98". But unlike the May 1968 student uprising, the protests are not political, or at least not revolutionary.

The students do not want to change the world but to succeed in it. They want the French state to deliver the educational standards that it advertises - and the Education minister, Claude Allegre, to hurry the reforms that he has promised. The other great difference from 1968 is that the protests, from the start, have been led, and disproportionately supported, by women.

A hastily cobbled together "inter-lycees" assembly on Wednesday chose 17-year-old Loubna Meliane as the movement's national spokeswoman. The presidents of the two main unions of lycee students are both young women. After an earlier march in Paris on Monday, four of the seven speakers from the crowd at the final rally were women.

The moving force in the original, spontaneous protests were mostly female students. Yesterday's marches were evenly divided between young men and women but the initial demonstrations were noticeably dominated by girls. One 17-year-old girl in Nimes said last week: "The boys thought it was a great idea but a lot of them just went to a bar for a beer."

Chantal, 17, from Vernon in the Seine valley, was a steward on yesterday's Paris march wearing a black and white papier mache top hat and ., carrying a loud-hailer. "It is just the same in my lycee," she said. "The girls did all the talking and made the decisions. Now the boys are coming along but they were slower to get involved. Maybe the girls are more concerned about their futures. They tend to work harder in school, too."

Robert Ballion, a sociologist who has studied lycee politics in France, said the phenomenon is not new. For several years, girls had been taking the lead in school politics. "You'll find that adults in all schools say that, age for age, girls are more mature to deal with as negotiators, more responsible, less childish than the boys, who tend to be obsessed with their image and their manhood."

Another difference from May 1968 is that almost everyone in France, from the Education minister to the teachers' unions, says that the protesting lycee pupils are perfectly justified. Allegre was the butt of many of the placards and banners yesterday. "Allegre needs Viagra" read one. But heinsists he is working as hard and as rapidly as he can to deliver the exact reforms the students demand: smaller class sizes, shorter studying hours, less fact-based courses, more one-on-one tutorials. Theunions are demanding more teaching posts.

No need, says Allegre. France has plenty of lycee teachers, but not all are in the right places.

He is pressing for the decentralisation of the school system so that local school districts can answer their own staffing needs more easily.Allegre, in a sense, invited the protests of the past two weeks by sending a circular to all 2.3 million lycee students last year, asking for their comments on his planned reforms. He received two million replies.

However, the minister infuriated the students when he announced in the spring that most of his reforms would not be in place until the end of next year. He announced this week that some of the changes would be brought forward to the start of the winter term next month.