President Nicolas Sarkozy has postponed introducing a bill that could allow French universities to eventually charge substantial tuition fees, apparently fearing the kind of student protests that plagued his predecessors.
The surprise move came the night before Tuesday's opening of a special parliamentary session Sarkozy convened to pass a series of laws during the normally quiet days of summer.
The legislature is dominated by his conservative UMP party and its agenda for the next six weeks is packed: Sarkozy wants action on bills to reduce income taxes, strengthen punishments for repeat criminal offenders and require a minimum level of service during public transport strikes.
The proposed higher education bill would allow French universities _ now all state-run and nearly cost-free _ to opt out of the national system, which sets budgetary and fundraising restrictions, mandates tuition and appoints professors.
The universities would then have more autonomy to recruit students, hire professors and look for additional funding, whether in the form of donations or tuition.
Sarkozy and some university presidents maintain this is the only way to mend a crumbling higher education system and boost job prospects for French youth.
But many students fear the move is a step toward the commercialization of the open European university concept, and that it will squeeze out the underprivileged. The head of the influential UNEF student union, Bruno Julliard, suggested it could lead to mass student protests.
"We are on the verge of a crisis," he said on France-Inter radio.
In reaction to a labor reform law championed by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last year, students and unions staged several weeks of strikes and protests that shuttered universities across the country. The response caused then-President Jacques Chirac to withdraw the sensitive part of the law.
Sarkozy met with university officials Monday and with student groups and teachers' union leaders Tuesday. He had planned to present the university bill to his new government for approval on Wednesday, so that it could go to parliament in the coming weeks.
Student leaders said they weren't being given enough time to have their say in the draft law.
"Events of recent days prompt large concerns among students and a feeling of anger," Julliard wrote in an open letter to Sarkozy. "I ask you, in the interest of our university system, to start real discussions and to open up the calendar for adopting the law."
Sarkozy agreed, pushing back the bill's introduction to the government _ but only for a week.
Another national student group, PDE, said reform of the university system is necessary, but warned the government not to forget "the audience for this reform ... the student community."
Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved and Emmanuel Georges-Picot contributed to this report.
Source: AP News