Row over funding closes French schools

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Francois Mitterrand, in a rare show of displeasure with the government of Edouard Balladur, yesterday criticised its handling of an education law which touches on the sacred republican tradition of separating the state and religion.

Teachers' unions closed schools across the country in a one-day strike. Up to 12,000 teachers in Paris joined a march on the Education Ministry. Demonstrations were held in other cities and towns against reform of the Loi Falloux, a 1905 law limiting the amount of money which local authorities can pay into private schools - synonymous in France with religious, mainly Catholic, schools. The reform, which passed through the Senate early on Wednesday, abolished the 10 per cent limit.

Private education in France, where teachers' salaries are still paid by the state, is a hybrid animal. Because the state picks up some of the bill, it is accessible to many and is not the preserve of the rich. In the Breton department of the Loire Atlantique, for example, some 40 per cent of children are educated in private schools.

Last summer, President Mitterrand refused to allow the conservative government to include revision of the law in the agenda for an extraordinary session of the Senate, arguing that if the law had been in force for nearly 100 years, it could hardly need urgent revision.

The decision by the ruling coalition to put it before the upper house late on Tuesday came as a surprise and prompted the Socialists to appeal to the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of all new legislation.

Mr Mitterrand, visiting the Pyrenees, said that, in his 35-year parliamentary career, 'I have never seen anything like it, anything so hasty'. He said he was 'surprised, upset and shocked' by the parliamentary majority's behaviour.

The episode has brought a rare note of tension to a nine-month left-right cohabitation that has been remarkable for the restrained, harmonious relationship between the Socialist Mr Mitterrand and the Gaullist Mr Balladur.

It was plainly seen by the left as an unnecessary slap in the face by an over-confident conservative coalition. Francois Bayrou, the Education Minister, argued that private schools needed extra money in many cases to bring their safety measures up to standard.

Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister whose brief covers the state's relations with religious institutions, suggested that it was time for a change in attitudes on the state's relations with religion. He said this was necessary because of a 'change in mentalities and the increase in actors', a reference to the number of French nationals of immigrant stock who are Muslims.

Saying in the public service magazine Administration that it was important to recognise the weight of the Muslim community, Mr Pasqua said attachment to a secular state should be reflected in 'non-discrimination'. New religious groups should be allowed to establish themselves in society within 'a healthy co-operation with institutional partners in so far as religion and public liberties are concerned'.

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