Balladur quizzes French youth on growing pains

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The Independent Online
A REPORT on the anxieties of French youth has suggested that the voting age be lowered to 16 in local elections, national service reduced to six months, and the school day restructured to give more time to sport and culture.

A committee set up to examine the answers to a questionnaire commissioned by Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, has presented preliminary findings, based on a study of half the 1,539,000 completed entries. Later this week it is due to give Mr Balladur a list of 10 priorities. The Gaullist Prime Minister promised to act on the suggestions within a month.

Mr Balladur asked for a nationwide sounding of youngsters in April, after street demonstrations forced the government to withdraw a proposal to allow employers to take on under 26-year-olds - hit by a 25 per cent unemployment rate - at 20 per cent below the minimum legal salary.

The government presented the measure as a means of reducing youth unemployment; the young resented the denial of a guaranteed wage, which has grown into a social right since it was introduced in 1970.

The results showed predictable concerns about the future, especially about unemployment. But it revealed satisfaction with the role of the family in a country, where traditional family structures, centred on the almost sacred family dinner, have largely resisted modern pressures.

The survey triggered controversy with sociologists and statisticians, who criticised the methods of collection and analysis. Left- wing students' unions and youth groups suggested Mr Balladur was 'playing the youth card' in his attempt to be a candidate for next year's presidential elections.

While the government was pleased with the response - officials said it had expected only 500,000 to reply - the final number still represented less than one- fifth of French youth. About 60 per cent of those who filled in the form were girls. Of the 15-25 age group questioned, the under-20s were more eager to reply. And youngsters in full-time education were more assiduous than contemporaries at work or on the dole.

Last week, three prominent sociologists wrote in Le Monde that the basic fact was that 'four out of five youngsters abstained from participating'.

Even Pierre Joly, the head of the administrative board of Insee, the state statistical institute, was critical. 'We don't know if all the young received the questionnaire, or if some didn't fill it out twice or if some adults filled it out. Equally we don't know if, in the 83 per cent who didn't reply, there is not some forgotten yet essential category.'

Distribution of the questionnaire was a problem. Though sent to households and available in schools and other places where youth gather, many youngsters complained they did not receive it. Whatever the polemics around the collection and analysis of data, the solutions proposed by the 11- member committee examining the responses were innovative.

The committee, which included teachers, broadcasters, a judge and Claude Bebear, chief executive of the Axa insurance company, suggested the voting age be lowered to 16 for municipal elections to overcome a disinterest in political life. It also proposed measures such as permanent 'youth-police commissions', to head off problems at a local level.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, a senator and president of the association of France's mayors, said lowering the voting age was 'a false good idea'. He said town halls should set up youth councils to look after the concerns of the young. In schools, youngsters felt not enough was done to help pupils with scholastic difficulties, a common criticism of the highly structured educational system. The committee called for more help for less gifted students, and said the school day, centred on academic skills, should include sport and cultural activities, such as drama and music.

The committee said schools could remain open to pupils after hours, to allow those who did not have proper conditions for homework access to suitable surroundings. On military service, the committee said the term of 10 months should be reduced to six. Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister, said this would leave France with 'soldiers but without an army'.