Unrest in France Has Warning for Precollegiate System

By Caroline Hendrie — May 23, 2006 6 min read

Since swarms of French college and high school students took to the streets this spring to protest a youth-employment law, much of the subsequent hand-wringing has focused on problems in the European nation’s troubled public universities. But many believe the furor carried messages for the nation’s elementary and secondary schools as well.

The fight against the “first employment contract,” known in France as the CPE, shut down some universities for months. Besides withdrawing the law—which was aimed at reducing France’s high youth-unemployment rate by making it easier to hire and fire workers younger than 26—the government’s main response to the protests has been to name a national commission to examine ways to improve ties between universities and the workplace.

Still, an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 high schools in France were closed for days at a time because of the conflict, according to the national union of secondary-level teachers. And coupled with widespread street violence last November in poor French suburbs, including damage to certain public schools, the CPE dispute raises serious questions for the nation’s 59,000 public primary and secondary schools, analysts in France say.

“One doesn’t put 2 or 3 million demonstrators in the street for two months simply to protest against an idiotic, stillborn law,” said Jean-Paul Brighelli, the author of a new book decrying what he sees as a decades-long lowering of the nation’s academic standards. “What these demonstrations express is an unspeakable anguish—fear of the future and fear of the present.”

Analysts have seen the protests as a product of deep anxiety about the perceived erosion of secure, well-paid jobs.

Granted, not all French youths seem to share that anxiety. For example, students in France’s famous elite universities, les grandes écoles, remained aloof from the CPE struggle.

But with unemployment of those under 26 at 22 percent, experts say that many young people who do find work end up in a series of dead-end, minimum-wage jobs.

Feeling Let Down?

Brigitte Perucca, the editor of Le Monde de L’Éducation, a monthly education supplement to the Paris-based daily newspaper, said the protests reflected a growing sense of disappointment among a population that “has invested a lot in school.”

“We are experiencing at this moment in France a crisis of confidence, because for 20 years one said to the French people that investing in school—pursuing studies after middle school, after high school— will pay off in better jobs,” said Ms. Perucca, who like others in this story were interviewed in French. “And for a while now, one feels that this is no longer true.”

In a book released this year, researcher Marie Duru-Bellat explores what she calls “educational inflation”: the falling value of French educational credentials as the percentage of the population that attains them has risen.

Two-thirds of French students now earn a baccalauréat, a high-school-level diploma earned by fewer than 30 percent of students 20 years ago. Anyone with a baccalauréat can enter France’s public universities, which are virtually free.

In announcing the new “commission on the national university-employment debate” in April, Minister of Education Gilles de Robien said the open-door policy is both the university system’s “honor and its challenge.”

Since 1980, the number of students in higher education has swelled from fewer than 1.2 million to more than 2.2 million, as graduates of vocational and technical secondary-level programs have flocked to college along with those from the more traditional college-preparatory strands. France’s elementary and secondary schools enroll more than 12 million students.

“Young people discover that after studying for a long time, they have trouble finding a job, and that feeds a certain anxiety that showed itself on the occasion of the CPE,” said Ms. Duru-Bellat, a professor of education sciences at the University of Burgundy in Dijon.

Phillippe Meirieu, a professor of education at Lumiere University in Lyon, said the protests underscored the divide between two categories of French youths: one that is “rather advantaged who worries about [socioeconomic] precariousness yet is still trying to obtain something from society, and one that is particularly disadvantaged and is no longer seeking anything.”

Dramatically underscoring that fissure, he said, were widely publicized scenes of hooded youths brutally beating students protesting against the CPE.

“I think the French education system is largely responsible for not having been able to give hope to these youths in great difficulty,” said Mr. Meirieu, who was the director of the teacher-training institute in Lyon until March, when he stepped down citing disagreements with the right-of-center government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The CPE dispute, he added, showed that France cares far better for its very young and old than its teenagers. “I am among those who think that in a general way, beyond this particular problem, adolescents are the great forgotten and abandoned of French public policy,” he said.

Eye on the Work World

Following the CPE protests, some have called for the education system to be more mindful of the needs of employers. The new commission will focus on how students are trained for and make the transition into the workforce, an issue of growing urgency in the United States. (“Ambiguity About Preparation for Workforce Clouds Efforts to Equip Students for Future,” this issue.)

In naming the commission, Mr. de Robien underscored the importance of improving the quality of career guidance and options for students in precollegiate education and universities alike.

“The government and especially the employers, the businesses, they say strongly that the education system is not sufficiently adapted to the job market,” said Bernard Boisseau, the general secretary of the Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second Degré, a union that represents teachers in middle and high schools.

“We, the teachers’ union, tend to say that the essential point is that there aren’t enough jobs, and that it’s not so much a question of the appropriateness of preparation for employment,” he said.

Mr. Boisseau said complaints about the devaluation of French educational credentials ignore that “if you take those who have the bac and those who don’t have the bac, it’s those who have the bac who succeed the best.”

“I think that the great majority of parents,” he said, “still consider school a tool to succeed in the future, even if it no longer guarantees success as much as before.”

Mr. Brighelli, the author, said the French education system is at a crossroads.

“Either we again become ambitious and high-performing, and we will have the right to be arrogant, because that is, it seems, how one sees us abroad,” he said, “or we collapse, making school an intellectual wasteland, as is too often the case today, and we will henceforth be a vacation spot for wealthy Chinese.”

Concern about academic standards led to the passage of a law last spring requiring a common set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of compulsory education at age 16. Just this month, the government unveiled that “common base of knowledge and competencies,” which will start being phased in this fall.

Le Monde’s Ms. Perucca sees those standards as part of a broader concern that, despite a 50-year push to lift the French population’s education level, “on one hand, there are young people who don’t know how to read and, on the other, graduates who don’t have a job.”

For Mr. Meirieu, one solution is to offer better training for skilled trades. At present, he said, schools prepare many graduates for office jobs that no longer exist, while high-paying jobs for plumbers or cabinetmakers go begging.

For her part, Ms. Duru-Bellat thinks the French are unduly pessimistic, given that the country typically scores near the middle in Europe in international comparisons of achievement, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. “The French are grumblers; they are never happy,” she said. “But even so, France remains a country that stacks up not too badly in Europe. So I think that it’s necessary to not have a vision that is overly alarmist.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Unrest in France Has Warning for Precollegiate System

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