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Wednesday, 21 April, 1999, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
Taming France's "little savages"
Social centres like the J.S. Koenigshoffen are offering alternatives to violence
By Sallie Davies

The Koenigshoffen Social and Cultural Centre in Strasbourg is a clean, modern, welcoming building. Far away I can hear someone practising piano scales. Right next to me, a young woman is looking at the centre's web site, while through the door a girl is working on sketches for her fashion collection. There are paintings on the walls and a buzz of activity everywhere.

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This girl used her time at the Koenigshoffen centre to design a fashion collection
It's four thirty in the afternoon and children are here between school and home. They're getting ready for the book festival. Children are encouraged to take a theme from a book and build on it - compose some music, make up a story, paint a picture perhaps. It's a way of getting them to love books. For some, school has made books a source of resentment. Many like to come here to learn without the threat of school's authority.

The teenagers turn up later. They tell us why the French city of Strasbourg has become notorious for youth violence. The Christmas lights here are different from anywhere else. These are not pretty twinkling stars but the flames of burning cars.

In what has become a strange annual ritual, youths set fire to cars, and attack the policemen sent to control them. For some it's an expression of frustration. They say they're sick of the racism they encounter from the police, employers and teachers. Many sociologists - like Sophie Body Gendrot, of the Sorbonne, who has compared the problems in France and the United States - agree that the odds are stacked against them. But it's also true that for many it's a game to be played with the media and a way of attracting the attention they don't normally get.

Youths and riot police confront each other at New Year in Strasbourg
When TV crews have filmed the fires in one suburb of the city, gangs from another banlieue (suburb) will be out to torch more cars to claim their few minutes of fame. These are sporadic incidents, and overall youth crime in France is far lower than in either Britain or Germany, but French youth violence is certainly on the increase. Delinquency rates have doubled in the last seven years and much of the blame for youth violence has been put on high unemployment amongst the young. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is so concerned that he has made law and order a priority. In February this year, he declared that youth violence was second only to unemployment as France's "public enemy number one", and demanded powers to combat the "little savages" who were making life in the cities so threatening.

The Koenigshoffen centre is an attempt to help children who don't do well at school. One of the teenagers I spoke to had been expelled. He had no qualifications and has had no luck so far trying to find a job. He took part in the New Year Violence because 'it was everyone for himself, it was a kind of anarchy, crazy.' The government is now trying to help people like him.

Education Minister Claude Allegre
Education minister Claude Allegre is proposing one of the most ambitious programmes of reform ever to have hit France's education system, aimed at reducing the 8% of pupils who are 'excluded' - who leave school, for one reason or another, with no qualifications. He wants to loosen up the rigid, formal 'top down' way of teaching and introduce more relaxed ways of working so that students who need help can get it. He has also introduced 10,000 young assistants to improve communications between teachers and students. But he is facing fierce resistance from most of the teaching unions who have been striking on a regular basis in protest.

Many teachers fear that academic standards will fall and the much admired 'baccalaureat' - the final school exam, which is both broader and deeper than Britain's A-level curriculum - will suffer. They also argue that they are teachers - not social workers or psychologists. They do not want to get involved in the school's social problems. Many of the teachers also loathe Allegre personally, mainly because, soon after taking office, he called them lazy . I met one teacher who called him 'detestable'.

Headmaster Benoit Stein outside Hans Arp College
The Hans Arp High School, in another suburb of Strasbourg, has 800 pupils. In the corridor at break time, I was mobbed by enthusiastic children desperate to speak English and examine my recording equipment. The size of the classes here would make a British teacher very envious indeed. The average number of pupils per teacher is 21. In France as a whole it's 26. But Hans Arp is special.

It's in an education priority zone, and gets extra money because its academic record is so poor. Only three out of ten children here go on to get their 'Bac'. The national average is seven out of ten. The solid, rather daunting figure of headmaster Benoit Stein is a constant presence at Hans Arp. He's determined to get his kids working. One of the ways he wants to do this is by creating a music and arts complex because he believes these can 'open the spirit' of children who are defeated by the heavier academic subjects.

The French system has always seen the arts and sport as secondary subjects and that should change, he says. But he has no illusions about the problems faced by his pupils. Unemployment is high around the school, there are drug dealers out on the estates and families are often poor and troubled. He's fighting the attitude which says: ' what's the point of school when there are no jobs out there? You can work hard, get your diploma and still end up unemployed'.

Will the government's reforms work? Can people like Benoit Stein succeed in making school work for those who can't or won't study? And will they help stop the bouts of violence in the city suburbs? The French education system, with its formality and heavy academic workload, may have worked in the past when society was more homogenous and more obedient. But large immigrant communities and economic upheaval have changed the face of France this century, and teachers will have to adapt their ways of teaching to a different social landscape. The French education system has been described as a 'Mammouth' - old, slow and heavy. But as Alexandre Cantini, as youth worker at the Koenigshoffen social centre put it, 'at the heart of the system I think there's a spirit for change.'

WEBSITE EXCLUSIVES: Unionist Claude Ritzenthaler:
"French education doesn't value creativity"
Sociologist Sophie Body-Gendrot:
"youths riot because their lives are unfair"
See also:

01 Feb 99 | UK Education
01 Jan 99 | In Depth
27 Dec 98 | Europe
16 Oct 98 | UK Education
15 Oct 98 | UK Education
13 Oct 98 | UK Education
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