ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
France is in a heated debate over middle school reform. The government wants to address growing inequalities in the education system, but traditionalists are up in arms. They say the reform plan will dumb down French schools. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Reforming schools may not be easy in any country. But in France, where education is highly centralized and the public school a symbol of French greatness, it's all but impossible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Intellectuals have taken to the airwaves and teachers and students to the streets to denounce the government's latest attempts at reform. One of the most contentious elements is the plan to cut back on Latin and Greek, focusing instead on teaching a more lively history of ancient civilizations. That has touched a nerve, says former journalist Peter Gumbel, who is writing his second book on the French education system.
PETER GUMBEL: The fuss has come about because there are certain very elitist things that are being scratched at. All the Latin and Greek teachers and anybody who thinks of himself as a great intellectual is saying this is the end of civilization as we know it. And of course, it's not.
BEARDSLEY: Conservatives are up in arms about proposed changes to teaching history. Slavery and colonialism are to be emphasized while the study of the Enlightenment will be optional. Former education minister Luc Ferry called it an apologist curriculum.
LUC FERRY: (Through translator) Presenting European civilization through the lens of the slave trade and colonialism is scandalous.
BEARDSLEY: International studies show France has one of the highest dropout rates, with 1 in 5 kids leaving school with no qualifications. Author Gumbel says the French public school system is also deemed to be one of the world's most unequal.
GUMBEL: And that's very shocking for the French because they have this meritocratic belief in the vision that anybody, by sheer dint of their intellectual prowess, can rise to the top of French society. And of course, it doesn't work like that.
BEARDSLEY: Back at the protest, 65-year-old Odile Nicolas says she's demonstrating for her granddaughter who will start middle school next year.
ODILE NICOLAS: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "Dumbing school down is not the way to go," she says. "Children from disadvantaged families should be pulled up to succeed in their lives and not the other way around."
Many marchers at the demonstration carry German flags. They fear the study of German will diminish if the reform does away with special bilingual classes for particularly talented students. It's not just the protestors who are worried. The German chancellor even called the president of France to voice her concern. Max Maldacker, a minister at the German embassy in Paris, says the bilingual are enshrined in a friendship treaty between the two nations that ended the hostility and founded the basis for the European Union.
MAX MALDACKER: On the long run, should German be in a dramatic decline in France, that would certainly not help, either, the status of the French language in Germany.
BEARDSLEY: Maldacker says it's crucial that French and German children learn each other's language to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for Europe. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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