Satchels slung over their backs, the children filed into class two by two, whispering excitedly about the new civics lesson introduced into their curriculum on the orders of France's Socialist education minister.
Florence Dalancon, a fifth-grade teacher at the primary school in Paris' 15th district, had come well prepared. There on the blackboard, in ascending order of importance, were the names of the various social groups to which her young pupils belonged: family, class, school, town, nation.
"How do we see that groups like these function properly, that there isn't too much violence, that people behave in an orderly way?" she asked, tackling a strange subject step by step.
Hands shot up around the room, and there was a sudden hubbub of voices as half a dozen children tried to speak at once.
"There must be rules," they shouted back eagerly, "rules."
It was a scene that seemed to encapsulate the sharp swing of France's educational pendulum toward more traditional teaching methods and away from the exuberance of the 1968 students' revolution with its slogan "to forbid is forbidden." Progressive education and "show-and-tell" activities are out. Discipline, patriotism and book learning are back.
A general shift back to conservative values has taken place in many countries, including the United States. What makes the French case peculiar is that it has gathered speed since the appointment of a left-wing Socialist, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, as education minister in July 1984.
Chevenement, whom the right saw as an ideological bogeyman in his previous incarnation as industry minister for pushing through an ambitious program of nationalizations, has received the plaudits of conservative parent-teacher associations for his recent reforms. His most ambitious project has been the reintroduction this fall of civics education as a compulsory primary school subject for the first time in more than two decades.
Sociologists have described the new educational trend as a return to the values of the Third Republic in the late 19th century, when teachers were regarded as an essential arm of the state. Their mission was to inculcate republican values and act as a counterweight to the clergy at a time when the republic was young and relatively weak.
In a handbook of "official instructions" for schoolteachers, which appeared earlier this year, Chevenement insisted that all children be taught "the elementary rules of democratic life." He sketched out a curriculum that included study of the French constitution, "the role of France in the world," "rejection of racism" and "love of the republic."
The ministerial directive inspired a sudden rush of new textbooks illustrated with the symbols of French patriotism: the red-white-and-blue flag; busts of Marianne, a young woman representing the republic; pictures of Joan of Arc, and the stirring words of the "Marseillaise."
"This book is a passport to loving and understanding your country and becoming a citizen of the world," proclaimed one textbook. Lesson one included the assertion: "All French citizens live according to the republican motto: liberty, equality and fraternity."
In practice, the new civics classes are not quite as jingoistic. If Dalancon's classroom is any guide, teachers have considerable freedom in explaining difficult concepts such as democracy and civic responsibility to their children.
"The minister talked about education, not instruction," Dalancon insisted over coffee in the teachers' room while preparing for her new class.
Rather than rely on the textbooks, she had asked the children the week before to cut out newspaper headlines referring to French institutions or constitutional concepts. The children were asked to make questions out of phrases that they had difficulty understanding and pin them up on the classroom bulletin board.
It was an exercise that produced references to the recent sabotage of a Greenpeace ship by the French secret services in addition to pedagogically useful points about the role of the president and the National Assembly.
"All these questions here concern transitory events; that means they aren't permanent," explained Dalancon, waving at a montage of headlines made into such questions as, "What does the word 'sabotage' mean?" "What is the DGSE?" the French secret service, and "Why is a parliamentary commission stifling the Greenpeace affair?"
"There is one phrase here that is the point of departure for everything else," she went on, turning toward a headline reading, "The Constitution of the Fifth Republic" in a strange-looking typeface. "Who found this one?"
A boy in the front row put up his hand, basking in the teacher's praise, and then said his father had helped him dig up the clipping from a pile of old newspapers in the attic.
With important legislative elections just five months away, the new emphasis on civics education has become a surprising area of agreement between the Socialist government and the right-wing opposition.
The present consensus on education is in marked contrast to the bitter political warfare that erupted when the Socialists tried to impose stricter state controls over private Catholic schools after the left-wing election victory in May 1981.
The reform plans were abandoned after supporters of the private schools held demonstrations, culminating in a march by nearly 2 million people in Paris in June 1984. The protests also led to the resignation of the former education minister, Alain Savary, who was replaced by Chevenement.
Although Chevenement's ideas have been broadly welcomed by parents, they have encountered some resistance from teachers, whose political outlook is generally left-wing.
Describing the minister's ideas as "ridiculous," one Paris primary school teacher told the independent leftist daily Liberation: "Chevenement behaves as if he had an old grandmother who was a teacher in her youth and stuffs him full of old ideas at the weekend."