Political Activism A Part Of Teen Life In France

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When French workers take to the streets to protest job cuts and president Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis, they're often joined by tens of thousands of high school students. Many students belong to high school unions, and political activism is an integral part of high school life in France.


In France, efforts by President Nicolas Sarkozy to work through the economic crisis have led to street protests by workers. And those workers are often joined by high school students, who themselves belong to unions. Eleanor Beardsley reports on how a recent school day turned into a day of protest.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The early morning trickle of students arriving at Lycee Pauber(ph) soon swells to a crowd of hundred of teenagers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Latin Quarter High School. But no one plans to go to class today. The students' goal is to block the entrance of the school and shut it down so they can join the national protest march through Paris. Their leader is 15-year-old Maxim Dubone(ph), megaphone in hand and dark curly hair hanging in his eyes. Dubone says the students are angry over high school reform plans.

Mr. MAXIM DUBONE (Student): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We're students, and we want to be actors of our education and play in role in the reforms. We demand to be brought into the discussions and not have the government force this reform upon us.

Dubone is a member of Lycee en Sud(ph), one of the three main national unions for high school students in France. While the percentage of high school students belonging to unions is actually small, the union's ability to mobilize the entire student body is legendary. In demonstrations last spring, dozens of lycees across the country were blocked and remained closed for nearly a month. Today, while the teenagers ham it up, talk on their cell phones and smoke, and few nervous administrators look out the windows from inside. But literature teacher Richard Simone(ph) wanders through the crowd collecting homework from his students and trying to convince them to show up for class in the afternoon.

Unidentified Student: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Oh, we have class today? replies one student when Simone asks him for his assignment. Simone says he understands the student's opposition to the reform but he doesn't agree with the blockade

Mr. RICHARD SIMONE (Teacher): (Through translator) Unfortunately it's not really the most engaged and concerned students who block off the school. The ones who do this seem to just be looking for a day off. It's a bit depressing.

BEARDSLEY: Whether union members of not, activism is a way for students to let off steam in a French school system that is authoritarian and allows no time for anything but study, says Emmanuel Davidenkoff, editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine L'Etudiant.

Mr. EMMANUEL DAVIDENKOFF (Editor, L'Etudiant): You have few clubs for arts or sports. So they express themselves with the radical things demonstrations, like closing the high school with chains, and they shout. We don't want to reform. They don't know what is in the reform. But it's their way to express themselves.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

BEARDSLEY: As Dubone rallies the troops, he also keeps in touch with other lycees in the Latin Quarter by cell phone. The mobilization against high school restructuring has very been so virulent that in December the government was forced to postpone it. That was during huge riots in Greece and officials feared the violence would spread to France. But not all students support the protestors. Many have simply stayed home to avoid the chaos. Seventeen-year-old senior Audree Pan(ph) showed up for class.

Ms. AUDREE PAN (Student): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: She is furious that the protestors won't let her into the building.

Ms. PAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: They can do what they want, but they don't have to right to stop the rest of us. I've already missed 15 hours of math and I just want to pass my bacheloriate at the end of the year.

BEARDSLEY: By 10:00 a.m. it's not clear if the protestors will succeed in closing their lycee for the day, but they clearly want to continue the struggle.

Mr. DUBONE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Dubone calls for one group to stay behind and stand guard while he and the other students join in the giant protest march through Paris.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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