France's top universities have recently agreed to admit more poor students, after strong pressure from the government to do so. The debate on offering less privileged youngsters an equal chance at success in France is far from over.
They are called grandes ecoles, a small and elite group of higher education establishments that are unique to France. Most of this country's top politicians and business leaders have graduated from these schools. Their champions say grande ecoles are based on meritocracy. That is because students entering the schools must all pass the same national exam.
But until now, most of these students have come from privileged backgrounds. Critics say the national exam is biased, since it presumes a level of knowledge and cultural background that students from working class families may not have.
That has prompted a call from the French government for these universities to institute new admissions procedures favoring underprivileged students. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not graduate from a grande ecole, laid out that demand in a January speech.
Mr. Sarkozy said 30 percent of students admitted into grandes ecoles should come from poorer backgrounds. The government is calling this a "goal" not a quota, which runs counter to the French system. After initially resisting the government's push, the grandes ecoles say they will try to meet the 30 percent goal within three years.
Until now, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po, is the only grande ecole to have aggressively sought out a more diverse student body. Science Po Director Richard Descoings told VOA the school's efforts have paid off. He says academically and professionally, it is impossible to distinguish students from poor and elite backgrounds.
Smoking a cigarette outside Science Po's library one evening, 22-year-old student Sofie Bonnard said she backed the government's push for other grandes ecoles to open up.
Bonnard comes from a less privileged school district in France's tough, working class suburbs. She is a beneficiary of Science Po's efforts to diversify its student body. Before that, she says, students from her high school never thought they could get into a grande ecole.
The government's diversity drive for the grandes ecoles has prompted a call by a group of academics for the state to level the playing field in other areas, like offering more housing and scholarships to poorer students attending these institutions. Etienne Boisserie heads the group, which is called "Save the University."
Boisserie argues the government is focusing too narrowly on the elite grandes ecoles, which account for just a small slice of French university graduates. He says there are many good students attending less prestigious universities who have been forced to abandon their educations because they simply cannot afford them.
The debate is also cast narrowly on questions of economic inequality. Efforts to promote ethnic minorities, known as affirmative-action programs in the United States, are taboo in France. But low-income neighborhoods the government wants targeted generally have a higher proportion of minorities.
Anti-discrimination activists like Mouloud Aounit believe that diversifying French universities is only a first step. Aounit is head of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship of Peoples, or MRAP, a Paris-based anti-discrimination group.
Aounit hopes the government call will prompt what he describes as a larger "de-ghettoization" of France's social system, which must also include equal access to jobs. He says there must be more measures for less fortunate youngsters to catch up.