PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a watered-down plan to modernize high schools on Tuesday, keen to avoid a repeat of street protests that sank a first reform attempt last year.
Education reform is a difficult balancing act for Sarkozy, who does not want to appear weak by backing down on a hot button issue but who is wary of unleashing a new round of demonstrations that could undermine his authority.
“What is at stake is your future and it is so important that I cannot resign myself to saying ‘This is too difficult, let me sweep it under the carpet,’” Sarkozy told an audience of high school students and teachers in a speech at his Elysee palace.
France has a chronic youth unemployment problem, with close to a quarter of would-be workers under 25 jobless compared with an overall rate of 9.5 percent, and there is broad acceptance that schools should better prepare pupils for the job market.
However, past reform attempts ended in disaster for several previous governments, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets, ending ministerial careers and weakening the overall momentum for policy change.
Hoping to avoid such a scenario, Sarkozy outlined general areas of reform and promised that individual schools would have a certain amount of leeway in how to implement the changes.
He proposed allowing pupils to change their minds about their specializations closer to their final exams, giving them hours of personalized attention from teachers aside from regular lessons, and placing greater emphasis on modern languages.
Changes in the science curriculum to better reflect modern technology were also on the agenda, as well as measures to help those who choose vocational training rather than academic subjects get into higher education institutions afterwards.
Sarkozy said Education Minister Luc Chatel would visit schools around the country to work out the details of the plan in consultation with staff and pupils by the end of the year.
The difficulty for Chatel is that teachers are angry over a separate drive by government to reduce the number of posts in the national education system, as part of a broader effort to shrink the civil service and make the state more cost-efficient.
Close to 25,000 education jobs were scrapped in the 2008 and 2009 budgets, while a further 16,000 are expected to disappear next year. These job cuts were a key factor in last year’s drawn-out street protests by teachers and pupils.
A first reform plan presented last year by Chatel’s predecessor, Xavier Darcos, was greeted with strikes and marches that were mostly peaceful although a few violent incidents took place on the fringes of student demonstrations in December.
Youth riots were raging in Greece at the time, and Sarkozy, fearing contagion to French streets, shelved the Darcos reform and gave the education portfolio to Chatel in a June reshuffle.