according to Geert De Clercq of REUTERS, whose dispiriting article, 'Young, French and desperate' is excerpted below.
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Some 150,000 pupils leave France's ruthlessly selective education system every year with no diploma whatsoever. Many end up in bleak suburbs around the big cities, where youth unemployment is high and crime is rife.
Those who do have diplomas face the barrier of a rigid labor market that overprotects the older generation and offers young people an endless series of temporary contracts, forcing them to delay mortgage and marriage for years.
In December, Gallup International's annual survey of 51 countries found that France is the most pessimistic country in the world about the economic outlook, and the French are more downbeat than they have ever been in the past 30 years.
The only politician who has put youth front and centre of his platform is Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, running neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in voting intention polls for the first round, and leading him for the May 6 runoff.
"If I am elected president, I want to be judged against one and only one objective: whether young people will have a better life at the end of my mandate in 2017 than in 2012," Hollande said in a keynote speech in January.
This may be even harder than balancing the state budget, another of his campaign promises.
His first priority is to reform schools. France has a meritocratic tradition dating back to the creation of a uniform, free and secular public education system in the 1880s. Children are tested from primary school onwards, with the aim of selecting the best students and directing them to top schools.
Those who do best in exams go on to top high schools such as the Henri-IV and Louis-le-Grand Lycees in Paris, and continue via even more selective "prepa" classes to the "grandes ecoles" that train a few thousand elite students per year.
The very best vie for the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which takes only about 100 students a year, who become top civil servants, ministers and CEOs of large companies. Hollande himself is an "enarque", as ENA graduates are called.
A system that guarantees success for so few produces failure for many, especially those whose parents do not have the means or the knowledge to help their children play the game.
In "La machine a trier" ("The Sorting Machine"), published last year, four researchers describe the French education system as one that continually classifies and eliminates, condemning the bottom part of every class to perpetual failure.
Olivier Galland, one of the authors, said that in a society with mass access to education, schools need a northern European focus on individual ability, teamwork and success for everyone.
"In a way, French school is a continuation of the Ancien Regime where the diploma replaces the nobility title," he said, referring to the period before the 1789 revolution.
All candidates in this year's election agree the education system is sick, but they prescribe different remedies.
Reversing a Sarkozy decision, Hollande also plans to add half a day to the school week - without adding subject matter - to give children more time to learn.
"The first thing that all great thinkers about education recommend, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onwards, is to give a child time. But in our system, those who need a little more time are immediately set up for failure," said Vincent Peillon, Hollande's top education advisor and a likely education minister if the Socialists win.
Sarkozy wants teachers to spend more time helping kids after hours and proposes they increase the number of hours they spend at school from 18 to 26 per week in return for a 25 percent pay increase. He has also said he will exempt teachers from his policy of not replacing one in two retiring civil servants, and proposed a specialised youth bank to guarantee student loans.
The authors of "The Sorting Machine" say reforming French schools is not just a matter of putting more teachers in class. "It is the very principle of an elitist system based on ranking that needs to be reviewed from top to bottom," they argue.