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Chirac backs off - sensibly

FRENCH Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's announcement of the decision to withdraw the educational reform bill that has sparked the worst student turmoil in France since 1968 comes not a moment too soon. Demonstrations that turned violent last week led to numerous injuries and the death of a young student - though whether as a direct result of a police beating is not yet clear.

Some of the proposals would seem to be not all that sweeping: Universities would have been allowed to charge up to twice the current minimum fee, now about $60; each university would be allowed to issue its own diploma, rather than the current nationally standardized document; and institutions would be formally allowed to impose on their incoming students admission requirements above the simple passing of the baccalaur'eat (school-leaving exam).

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And so the vehemence of the public response to these proposals surprised even the French. But that reaction illustrates how fragile the social peace is, and how strong the undercurrents of economic uncertainty, particularly regarding employment.

French university students already feel themselves to be, to a certain extent, second-class citizens, because they are not at the 'Ecole Nationale d'Administration or one of the other grandes e'coles. About a third of those who sit for the baccalaur'eat fail; about half who pass and are admitted to a university do not complete their study; and a third of those who do graduate do not find work.

And so any attempts to stratify the system any further touch some very tender nerves - as do government actions that would seem to ``denationalize'' the universities as if they were state-owned manufacturing companies.

From the government's point of view, the whole episode showed a lack of political sensitivity. The votes for the government proposal were there in Parliament, and the student reaction was a genuine surprise. But a university education for anyone who passes the baccalaur'eat has been long seen as a birthright in France.

For Jacques Chirac, the man who would be president, the fallout could be considerable. Those on his left will see him as the man who pushed for a law so unpopular that the public response led to the death of a student; those on his right will see him as caving in to popular pressure. The clearest beneficiary is likely to be President Francois Mitterrand, who, arguing against the reforms, has shown he can influence domestic as well as foreign policy.

For the moment, however, Mr. Chirac has taken the right action in withdrawing the proposals - in time, it is to be hoped, to preserve the ``consensus'' by which France has been governed since the establishment of power-sharing between right and left after the March elections. He has also taken the right step in instructing Education Minister Ren'e Monory to ``engage immediately in a wide consultation,'' to develop reforms the public can accept - if, in fact, reforms are shown to be necessary.

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