Student voters waver

April 21, 1995

The two factors set to sway the outcome of the first round of voting in the French elections this Sunday are the youth vote and the level of abstention, according to political analysts here.

Student financial problems topped the agenda when both main student unions, UNEF-ID and FAGE, the federation of non-political student associations, met ahead of the presidential election to prioritise issues and draw up their demands.

Opinion polls at the start of the month indicated that two out of three young voters had still not decided who to vote for.

This indecisiveness in the 18 to 24 age group soars far above an unusually hesitant 44 per cent of all voters. Analysts put the number of young "don't knows" down to lack of faith in politicians rather than lack of interest in politics.

Prime minister Edouard Balladur is said to have less support in this age group than his rivals mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac and Socialist Lionel Jospin, but could benefit most from a high abstention rate. Voting takes place during the spring vacation.

UNEF-ID asked all the presidential candidates whether they were in favour of introducing a reform of higher education. Jacques Chirac did not reply in time, prime minister Edouard Balladur proposed a large scale "consultation of students" and former education minister Lionel Jospin promised to continue the reforms he began under the last socialist government.

Mr Chirac is in fact promising a national referendum on education, although its contents remains unspecified.

On the question of student support, Mr Chirac's election pledge is for an approach which would be "fairer and more generous than the current system of grants, aid and loans", together with a rise in the maximum grant to bring it up to Fr30,000 a year (Pounds 3,700).

Far vaguer, Mr Balladur promises "guaranteed grants and the development of advantageous loans", while Mr Jospin offers "guaranteed resources based on social criteria".

Mr Jospin is telling student voters that while he was education minister, spending on universities doubled in five years. "If we had not done this, French universities would have literally exploded," he said.

However, Socialist Party campaign officials are concerned that Mr Chirac is attracting strong support from a generation too young to remember his university policies as prime minister in 1986.

UNEF-ID is demanding a minimum income for all students based on a radical change to the current system, which relates student grants to parental income.

Under the proposal, all students would receive a sum close to Fr30,000 per annum irrespective of family income.

To offset the estimated Pounds 8 billion per annum cost, parents would lose all tax deductions related to student offspring and there could be additional taxation of those in higher income brackets.

UNEF-ID argues that his approach is the only satisfactory way to guarantee the social and economic independence of students.

Student support at present is a patchwork of different measures funded by different government departments.

One of the most widespread and fastest growing types of student aid comes in the form of rent subsidies. Introduced by the last Socialist government, student access to rent subsidies began in 1992 and now costs nearly Pounds 800 million per annum.

The next government is likely to try to curb this, but will undoubtedly remain wary of unleashing student anger since the last attempt to limit access brought students onto the streets.

As France's student population tops two million, a higher proportion of students depends on income support. Grants, which never cover full subsistence, are lost when students repeat a year. Their only recourse is to apply to over-subscribed aid funds.

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