French hail victory on private schools

Click to follow
THOUSANDS of demonstrators braved cold winter rain in Paris yesterday to show their support for the secular state school system after the government of Edouard Balladur suffered a setback in attempts to bolster financing for private schooling.

An 8-km (5-mile) procession of largely middle-aged, middle-class people edged slowly through the city to protest against the government's attempt to lift the ceiling on the amount of money the authorities can give to private schools. Most private schools in France, the majority of them run by the Catholic Church, are on contract to the state, which already pays their teachers' salaries and other costs.

The marchers' battle, however, was already won, since the Constitutional Council last Thursday rejected part of the reform of the 144-year-old Loi Falloux, and the government, which could have presented a new text, quickly backed down, offering instead a public dialogue on education.

The march was the first large-scale public demonstration against the government since Mr Balladur, who has been riding astonishingly high in opinion polls, became Prime Minister last March. The test now will be to see whether it will damage his hitherto almost perfect public image.

The Constitutional Council, headed by Robert Badinter, a former Socialist justice minister and one of France's top lawyers, examines all laws to ensure they conform with the constitution of the Fifth Republic. To get the amendments past - which the government said was necessary to improve safety standards in some private schools - the government would have had to propose a constitutional reform, a measure that would have been well-nigh impossible without the assent of the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, a declared and vociferous opponent of the measure.

Inside the Gaullist RPR party, opponents of the patrician style of Mr Balladur have been discreetly gleeful at the problems the issue has raised. They fear that he will be the Gaullist candidate in next year's presidential election rather than Jacques Chirac, the RPR president.

One senior Gaullist said privately last week that he was pleased a large number of his constituents planned to take part. Philippe Seguin, the Gaullist president of the National Assembly, who is rapidly becoming Mr Balladur's main opponent in his own party, has twice taken the side of the anti-reformists in the past two weeks.

First, he expressed support for the secular tradition in French state education in a speech offering new year greetings to Mr Mitterrand. Then, just as the Constitutional Council was about to rule on the issue last Thursday, he told a reception in parliament that the funding issue obscured the real priority facing national education policy: the need to ensure adequate schooling in deprived areas, particularly where there was high unemployment or large immigrant populations.

(Photograph omitted)