The follies Bayrou

March 29, 1996

Translation has always been recognised as a difficult endeavour. There is an old Italian saying "traduttore, traditore", which equates it to treason. This is because every word is spoken or written with reference to a cultural background from which it draws much of its meaning. This cultural background, this set of references common to writer and reader, changes with the language, so that many shades of meaning get irretrievably lost in translation. For some words, deeply imbedded in the culture, one may even wonder whether they can be translated at all.

I sit here wondering how to translate the words Etats Generaux. Francois Bayrou, the French minister of education, has pledged himself to convene les Etats Generaux de l'Universite. In preparation for this, he has spent the past months meeting with representatives of just about every group who has something to say, or feels it has something to say, about higher education. He is also calling for written contributions from all and sundry.

The idea is that after this preliminary process is over, some kind of conference will be convened in the near future, in an unspecified format, to debate the ideas that have been put forward and arrive at some kind of general agreement.

To French minds, the word Etats Generaux inevitably brings us back to the fateful year 1789, when Louis XVI summoned the Etats Generaux, which had not convened for 200 years, thereby opening a sequence of events that eventually led to the downfall of the monarchy. The immediate reason was the sorry state of public finances and the total lack of confidence in the monarchy.

The Etats Generaux were a very old institution of the French monarchy, something like the two houses of the English Parliament. They fell into disuse in the late Middle Ages, after the king had wrested from them the right to levy taxes without their approval. The only Etats Generaux the French remember are those of 1789, which Louis XVI convened as a last resort.

Bringing them out of mothballs seemed harmless enough, but it started a chain of events which brought the French revolution and his end. I am not predicting anything similar in the near future, nor putting Francois Bayrou in the shoes of Louis XVI. It is just a question of recording that right now in France it is a time for symbols.

For all their bitterness, the strikes of December 1995 have resulted in a stalemate. The boat has been vigorously rocked, some more water has poured inside, but the vessel is still afloat.

For several weeks students protesting against poor working conditions occupied some provincial universities such as Rouen, Metz and Lille, and the government lived in the constant fear that they would merge their cause with civil servants protesting against the reform of the pension system, thereby creating an uncontrollable situation.

But nothing of this kind happened, and now, two months later, it seems that the minister got off the hook by merely throwing in some more money and some more academic positions. As a senior official put it to me: "We have recouped the two bad budgets of 1993 and 1994."

This is very little to show after one month of spectacular strikes, during which universities were headline news. One might even say that the whole episode was much ado about nothing. It was not. It has shown once more how deeply the country cares about its higher education: there was never any suggestion that the students were wrong in making their demands, or that access to universities should be somehow restricted.

French society still judges a man or a woman by the degree they have obtained as a student, and it is felt that no one should be denied the chance to strive for the highest diploma he or she can obtain. On the other hand, the constraints such an approach put on the university system are enormous, if only because of the sheer number of students pressing for a precious place.

This is why the December episode leaves us with mixed feelings. There is a sense of relief that we have been spared major trouble and the system is still working, coupled with a sense of disappointment that the major issues have not been faced and that a rare opportunity to settle them may have been missed.

From his position in government, Francois Bayrou is trying to capitalise on these feelings. Summoning the Etats Generaux de l'Universite captures some of the mood: general dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, a feeling that reform is long overdue but that it has to preserve the egalitarian principles of French society, and the hope that this can be achieved in a flurry of consensus, as in the famous night of August 4, 1789, when the aristocracy renounced its privileges and exemptions. Even the procedure of asking for written contributions from everyone involved recalls the cahiers de doleances, in which the French, in 1788 and 1789, described their everyday life and sent their petitions for change to the king in Versailles.

Of course, there is still a good deal of scepticism about the minister's initiative. Professors' and students' organisations are still much more involved than the rank-and-file, although at some point the proposals are supposed to be discussed in each university. There are also conflicting initiatives coming from other quarters.

President Chirac has commissioned Roger Fauroux, a former minister of industry, to write him a report on higher education, and the Fauroux commission has made some headlines of its own by conducting public hearings on television. So what will come out of these Etats Generaux de l'Universite is still not clear, even if they are ever actually held.

However, as of now, all major organisations are playing the game, albeit with a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek; the ministry of education is throwing its full weight behind the Etats Generaux, and the whole thing is gaining momentum every day.

After all, Francois Bayrou is a former teacher of history who has recently published a book on Henry IV, the king who ended the civil wars in France by reconciling Catholics and Protestants. He knows the lessons of history very well, and it may well be that they are more ingrained in our minds than we ourselves suspect. Vive les Etats Generaux, and let us hope for the best.

Ivar Ekeland lectures at the Institut Finance Dauphine, Universite Paris-Dauphine.

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