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In Paris, numbers – and spirits – of student strikers are waning

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Mr. Sarkozy is the first French president to try to reform colleges away from an elite system that offers top-grade schools for 4 percent of French students while leaving the rest to fend for themselves in a sprawling university system whose degrees are less respected.

At its core, the strike pits a broad if not always deep sense among students that they are upholding a concept of pure education and public service – which needs more funding and should not mimic a more-commercial American model – against a tough government view that colleges are outmoded, inefficient, inflexible, and underperforming in an era of globalization.

Two different reforms tied to funding are creating "autonomous" authority at universities, allowing private-sector funded research, changing teaching and research loads for professors, and reframing funding between the elite schools and the broader university system.

In a nation as conscious of bureaucracy and detail as France, university reform is an endlessly dense political hot potato: the left wants state oversight improved; the right wants to allow private-sector involvement.

Students worry the reforms will introduce student fees, and professors worry about new measures that will trade pure research that takes time for short commercial research projects that make a profit.

Aniko Sebesteny, a student leader and anthropology PhD candidate who led a march from Nanterre University in Nanterre to Paris, says some reforms might be needed.

But the reform laws are too radical, she says. "It's like getting married," she comments. "You don't want to take just any available husband."

Much of the reform impulse is based on Sarkozy's framing of a France losing its global position. The debate runs white hot each year when the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ratings on world colleges come out.

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