Dynamist Blog

The French Disease

My trip to speak at Créapôle, a private design school in Paris, taught me a bit about French education. Elaine Sciolino's NYT report confirmed, with more details, what I'd gathered about the sad state of French universities

At Nanterre, Alexandre Frydlender, 19, a second-year student in law and history, complained about the lack of courses in English for students of international law. But asked whether he would be willing to pay a higher fee for better services, he replied: "The university is a public service. The state must pay."

A poster that hangs throughout the campus halls echoed that sentiment: "To study is a right, not a privilege."...

The protests also were the latest warning to the French government and private corporations that the university system needs fixing. Officials, entrepreneurs, professors and students alike agree that too many students are stuck in majors like sociology or psychology that make it difficult to move into a different career in a stratified society like France, given the country's troubled economy.

The fear of joblessness has led many young people in different directions. Students who have the money are increasingly turning to foreign universities or private specialized schools in France, especially for graduate school. And more young people are seeking a security-for-life job with a government agency....

"We are caught in a world of limits where there's no such thing as the self-made man," said Claire de la Vigne, a graduate of Nanterre who is now doing graduate work at the much more prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris. "We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible. Our guide is fear."

Founded in 1981 by an entrepreneurial couple, Jean-Michele and Harumi Laralu, Créapôle sees itself as an upstart, with a somewhat adversarial relationship to the French policital and academic establishment. Its big selling point is its job placement rate. The school works students hard, focuses on practical problems, and guarantees graduates a job. Créapôle students don't have time to protest, I was told, and they laugh at the manifestations (demonstrations, or protests). They have too many assignments to complete--and, unlike the student marchers, they're paying hefty tuition, about $8,000 to $10,000 a year, with no scholarships. (When my mother asked M. Leralu if the school offers scholarship, his answer demonstrated a telling cultural gap: "No, we are a private school.")

Créapôle students, too, are looking for security above all--a job with a "stable company," I was told. What a contrast to U.S. design students, who tend to value interesting work much more highly than stability. After all, you can always get another job.

On that note, Molly Selvin's LAT feature on picky college grads provides a sharp contrast to Sciolino's NYT article. I was particularly struck by this anecdote:

UC Berkeley senior Katie Seligman values that kind of opportunity. The 21-year-old psychology major turned down an offer from Internet search titan Google Inc., instead agreeing to start next month with a San Francisco healthcare consulting firm partly because she will interact with top managers and the chief financial officers of large hospitals.

"I wanted to be challenged," she said.

On the French disease, James Traub's NYT magazine article on French presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal contains this priceless anecdote:

In fact, Royal seems innocent of any taint of economic liberalism. She regards Villepin's peremptory imposition of the new law as a sign of a systematic failure to listen to ordinary people; but she does not view the national suspicion of market forces as a comparable source of paralysis. I was surprised, I said during our interview, that someone whose entire life constituted a triumph over adversity would join the campaign to insure against précarité....Royal countered my observation with a familiar refrain: "The problem is that everybody isn't subject to insecurity. Do you see businessmen being fired for incompetence? The young see politicians, who also have a stable and secure job, being civil servants, lecturing others on insecurity. So the young graduate will say, 'In the name of what am I going to sign an insecure contract?' "

Then the conversation took an odd turn. Royal asked me, with the air of someone pulling out a trump card, "Are you in an insecure situation?" Actually, I explained, as a contract writer for this magazine, I have little security.

Royal wasn't going to be put off the scent that easily. "Yes, but how many years does your contract last?"

"I sign a new one every year."

Now she was frankly incredulous. "You could be fired every year?" For all her own experience, Royal apparently viewed précarité as a kind of socioeconomic stigma rather than the price you might choose to pay for freedom. Or maybe you could say that for her, as for the left generally--and not only in France--market liberalism and globalization have the status merely of fact, which is categorically inferior to a right. This is no less so if the fact appears to obviate the right. "The global economy shouldn't be supported by wage earners," Royal insisted. "They have to be able to build a future, like any human being."

I wrote another book about that. Like The Substance of Style, however, it is not available in French. Ces livres sonts trop americains, or so they say. You can, however, buy them in Chinese and Korean.

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