Paris. Fierce opposition from the French education ministry brought traditional initiation rites to a halt last week in some preparatory classes for the grandes ecoles.
Legislation before parliament next month would impose up to six months' jail and Pounds 5,000 in fines for any "student or pupil imposing on another student or pupil, pressure of any kind, acts, attitudes or behaviour incompatible with human dignity".
There has been a growing campaign against ragging, which is organised by older students in the selective higher education sector In its extreme forms it allegedly involves sexual, physical and psychological abuse lasting from one to several weeks.
In October, it may become clear whether the grandes ecoles will bow to pressure as the lycees appear to have done. It is in the engineering, medical, veterinary and business schools that the tradition is most entrenched.
At a round table with campaigners at the start of last week, junior education minister Segolene Royal promised tough action if she heard of abusive ragging. She stopped short of an anti-ragging committee suggestion for free-phone help-lines offering legal and psychological support in each education authority.
But by mid-week, furious phone calls from the ministry brought ragging to a sudden halt in one of the top Paris lycees offering preparatory classes, the Roman Catholic lycee Stanislas.
The new director of the school, Henri Hude, was outraged by the intervention.
The student organisers of the ragging were quite genuinely unable to see objections to dressing up in dark glasses and black leather coats and shouting while making the freshers do press-ups, or waking them at 6am with horns to run around the yard.
"The ministry said this was abuse. It's ridiculous. We dress up and do these things to impress the newcomers. We're authoritarian at times, then chat with them. It's theatrical and creates a bond because it's an unusual experience. But sexual harassment was stopped years ago," said student association president Benjamin Andre.
But leading campaigner Jean-Claude Delarue, who claims his association is now getting a dozen calls for help a day, said: "If students are acting under constraint, it can never be acceptable. The ragging can be very abusive - there has been sodomy.
"Bad publicity has partly reduced extreme forms of ragging, but partly sent it underground. I agree with Segolene Royal that it will take a prison sentence to stamp it out," he added.
Next year, Stanislas will substitute visits to terminally ill cancer and Aids patients for press-ups and leap-frogging. "The authorities take a repressive, moralistic approach, but we still need to find ways to foster bonding," said Mr Hude.