French Lessons


I find other cultures completely fascinating. I’m quite sure this is the reason that I’ve always been compelled to travel. Actually being in a place gives you insights that you will never find in a book or on-line.

But no matter how many times you visit a destination, you never quite develop the same understanding as you do when you live and learn there.

I think this is why I’m such a fan of memoirs – I’m always trying to dig a little deeper, learn a little more – even if it is through the eyes of others.

All of this back story will give you some idea of why I was so delighted to read Sherry’s latest post on French education. In it, she takes a thought provoking look at the French school system through the eyes of the all important students.

I’m very thankful to Sherry from Save. Spend. Splurgefor sharing yet another aspect of French culture here on Distant Francophile. If you are a regular reader you’ll know that Sherry kindly offered to guest post on all things French culture related in response to reader requests.

Sherry’s partner immigrated from France to Canada over 20 years ago and together they have a Franco-Anglo toddler that Save. Spend. Splurge readers know as Baby Bun.

This life experience has allowed Sherry to get to know French culture from a different angle – and she writes about it in such a compelling way.

Anyhow, I’ll get out of the way now and let you get on with learning about what it’s like to be a student in France.

And until next time – au revoir.

French Lessons

We recently met up with some friends and their three children who have had an erratic migratory pattern having been born in France, then moved to the United States, then back to France, and now to settle permanently in Canada.

Note: French families generally always have 3 children because of tax purposes – once you have three, you start receiving some major benefits from the government because they’re trying very hard to make sure that you not only procreate but procreate to replace yourselves (represented by your first two children), and to help the country continue to grow (represented by child number 3). You should take a look at the families the next time you ever travel to France, and count to see how many children each couple has as a fun exercise.

Anyway, our friend started talking about living in France, the U.S. and Canada, and when we started asking his now secondary-school aged children how they liked the various schooling systems, they all unanimously said that they couldn’t take it in France and much preferred the U.S. or Canada.

My partner and his friend laughed uproariously, having been through the extremely strict, harsh and regimented schooling system. I heard a little bit about it before but ended up learning a great deal more than I had known previously through the conversation and the eyes of the children.

The first thing to note, is that French schooling systems seem to work on humiliation being the best teacher. They will do things such as sort your quiz marks in descending order and make remarks as they go down the list, such as: “As always, Émilie is at the top of the class again as #1, followed by Jean-François as her second….”, both to praise and continue to encourage the first child to work as hard as before, and to needle the second place one to ‘beat’ the first one for the chance of being called out as #1, but then it gets worse. They recounted hearing their teachers say as they reached the bottom of the list: “And to no one’s surprise, Marc is at the very bottom. Again with a score of ____.”

When I heard this, I thought they were joking! How could they do this? And to little school-aged children?! How terrible!

They looked at me with bemused looks and said: “Well, it’s to teach us that we have to work hard to stay on top, and if you feel humiliated being on the bottom, you ought to stop watching so much television and study much harder.”

Stumped, I could see that they saw it as being a good thing, but I wonder how many children feel so demoralized always being called out as the ‘dumbest one’ in the class, yet I do see their point of how we shouldn’t encourage and tell children they’re the best and brightest stars in the world when they haven’t done a lick of work either. I’d prefer a balance.

The second thing of note, is how they sort them as they get older. Once you reach around age 13 or 14 (they couldn’t recall), you are assessed by teachers, and declared either fit to continue on to higher education or shuffled off into a trades school because you clearly have no aptitude or brains to even try to enter into one of les grandes écoles (the big schools) that specialize in business or engineering, so you shouldn’t even bother wasting the country’s resources, nor your time to do so and just give up.

The one single subject to determining all of this? Mathematics. It’s the #1 filter in France, and a source of pride if you are very good in math. All other subjects are secondary no matter how brilliant you are at them.

Again, shocked into silence, I pondered the meaning of this. So if a child is unable to fit into a rigid academic system where mathematics is king, but you happen to have a real aptitude for something more creative, you’re dismissed.

As my partner and his friends all went to one of the big schools in France (first rank, mind you), they didn’t see anything wrong with this, but all I could think of was of children who let’s say have had no encouragement, support or help to reach their best potential. I see the point and its efficiency, but I feel torn between thinking it’s a good thing or wondering if it is wasting some of our brightest minds.

Before I continue, I should mention something:

My partner in particular, was from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Paris. His parents had no money, and no education whatsoever and for him to reach the heights that he did, is extremely rare.

He is, even amongst his peers, admired for what he has accomplished because they all come from rich families who had the time and resources to shower onto their offspring by sending them to the England in the summers to study English with native speakers, or to hire the best tutors to help them in any subject they wished (e.g. learning Italian as a tertiary language which is mandatory). His friends didn’t have to think about money because they had it.

My partner, while he did not want for food or shelter, had no other stimulation or help. He only had the strongest desire to ‘make it out of there’, as he put it in his own words. He saw his childhood friends turn to drugs, gangs and dropouts, and he knew he was not going to be that statistic.

So, he studied.

He studied like a maniac, he only dreamed about studying and would spend hours studying, only stopping for breaks to eat or go to the washroom, or sleep. Even when he sat in those preparatory schools (about 2 years) to study subjects like higher math, philosophy, etc to sit for those exams for first, second, and third rank business and engineering schools, he recalls being told on the first day:

Do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend? Break up with them. Do you have a job? Quit. Do you have any other obligations or hobbies other than studying to try and make it into one of the best schools here? End them now. If you don’t, I guarantee you are not going to make it. This is not for people who aren’t serious about making it.

After that speech, half the class got up and left the room.

The remaining half, were determined, but even the most determined of all children don’t make it, and have to settle for lower rank schools, or worse of all, pay for a for-profit school with no rank (quelle horreur!)

So when you hear all of that, and you realize what they put those children through to weed out who is the best and brightest, it sort of makes sense that it created a whole academic system where once you get that degree from École Polytechnique for instance (the PARIS location, by the way, not any others, nor the misleadingly named one in Montréal that is nowhere near its level), it means you are set for life career-wise.

I likened it to the rigours of academic life in Asia, having heard similar horror stories about Chinese, Indian, and Japanese students studying until they forgot to eat, or worse, committing suicide because they did not make it to the #1 spot.

It is a bloody, and brutal business, but … like all things French, also a sense of pride for those who have made it.

(If any of you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Kings of Pastry (2009) to see that kind of French dedication to excellence at play but with delicious pastries. We both had a good laugh at the end when a judge to encourage the bakers at the end tells them like an army general: “C’est un truc d’homme!” — it’s a man’s thing — ironic, because our society expects women to be in the kitchen not men, particularly for baking, but not if it is for ‘higher-level’ competitions of excellence apparently)

Unfortunately for the others, if you don’t have such a degree, you can pretty much forget about a good career unless you plan on working like a dog to make up for what that single piece of paper can give you as a stamp of pre-approval into the highest echelons any company in France.

It’s partly the reason why my partner left. As proud as he is of what he has accomplished, he sees its limitations.

With Baby Bun, I am seeing that he wants to help Baby Bun learn, but not coddle him (I approve!), and he wants to have Baby Bun have that innate curiousity inside to learn on his own and teach himself; not to be forced to do it or rewarded for any accomplishments the way that many parents particularly Asian ones do.

I see the way my partner was raised, and I can understand now why he is tough on Baby Bun but also very lenient, not wanting to put him through what he went through, and now it finally makes more sense why he and his friend laughed heartily when the kids declared that France was ‘too much’ in way of schooling.

I’d have to agree, but at least now we can trot out these stories to Baby Bun and tell him how easy he has it. 😉


About Sherry

I am a wealth-obsessed, style-focused, minimalist who blogs at Save. Spend. Splurge..

I’m with a partner who immigrated from France to Canada over 20 years ago and we have a Franco-Anglo toddler named Baby Bun, our rambunctious, ever-hungry child.

I’m a freelancer and the rest of the time I relax and enjoy the time off by travelling, although lately, that has been on hold and now the true highlight of my day is looking forward to my toddler’s sacred nap time to get a break.


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7 thoughts on “French Lessons

  • Hilde

    I am German, and our sons´ school has a partner school in France. All the French exchange students we had here over the years were shocked about the lack of discipline, the missing respect for the teachers and the general attitude of school being not so important. And of course, our sons, and their friends even more, were shocked about the strictness and the demands of the French school.

    • sherry @ save. spend. splurge.

      It is a serious thing in France. Everyone knows it determines your life path and success if you can ‘make it’, which puts a lot of undue pressure on the young ones, usually starting at the age of 13. It also seems to engender a sense of superiority if you ‘made it’…

      A lot of the ones who make it into the good schools come from rich families who do not have to worry about money, so they put all their resources towards tutors, studying, and not having their children worry about ANYTHING. There doesn’t seem to be much diversity in the students in terms of economic situation & social status, as there are very few who get in on academic merit and have their tuition paid for in full by the school due to their brilliance.

      I suspect your French exchange students, and your German sons and friends would be even more shocked by our school system here 😉 We’re even more lax.

  • Carol

    Thanks to you and to Sherry for pointing out the realities of a French education. As a teacher in the US, I constantly hear how “we” do not meet the rigors of a European education. Sherry so aptly points out that such a competitive education comes at a cost for those who do not, excuse the pun, make the grade. I met a brilliant German student when I was seventeen who was in university to become a physicist. He also volunteered to tutor Turkish children, an activity that he seemed to enjoy. When I suggested that he become a teacher, he said that he could not because he was in the track to become a physicist and that is where he would have to remain. I was so sad for him-to have such little control about one’s lifetime occupation.

    • Janelle

      Thank you so much for sharing your insight Carol. I agree that it is very sad when people spend their lives doing something they don’t love. Unfortunately the decisions that pave the way for our careers are often made when we are young and still ‘finding’ ourselves. And the general pressures of life then make it tricky to change paths later in life.

    • sherry @ save. spend. splurge.

      That really is sad but we also have to understand they make their own choices. He chose to continue on that path and didn’t want to move away from it for something that may have fulfilled his heart but ultimately not his (or his family / society’s dreams).

      I hope he finds a way to do it as a sabbatical, or a side gig in the future.

  • Alisa

    I read this with some interest, and I will suggest that, loosely based as it is on anecdotal conversations, it presents a somewhat flippant and distorted view of the French system.
    The French educational system is one of the societal pillars that make France France, albeit a pillar that is under tremendous pressure as France tries – or doesn’t – to make the educational system work for its immigrants and other populations who have not traditionally been part of the best of French academic life. You may remember the student riots in 2005, in protest of (among other things) an inequitable public education system in the immigrant suburbs of Paris. That has not changed much, and France is going to have to grapple much more seriously with this challenge than it has done. (We face the same things in the United States with appalling inner-city schools and some equally appalling rural and suburban systems. Change here is exponentially harder: we have almost 14 thousand independent school systems, rather than one national system like France).
    In France, admission to a program that leads to the bac vs. a trade school will change a child’s life in ways that we cannot fathom in the US and probably not in Australia, either. It is something that every child is aware of from the first day of kindergarten, and parents and school work together toward this choice when the time comes; it is not taken lightly, and it is not simply a sorting in middle school.
    We would consider that France has a very impersonal and rigorous system in many ways – but their overarching goal is the wholistic formation of a French citizen, not simply what we would consider academic education. Humiliation? Any teacher under any system can be abusive, but I would say that it is not a bad thing to know where one stands in one’s class. In my own classes, I have offered this option to my students, and they have overwhelmingly adopted it. (Students were always given the individual option of keeping their scores private, but very few did, and most of those eventually decided that they were fine with sharing.) For students who prove superior academic ability, the reward is immense, including an excellent public university education – one of the best in the world, for almost free. My students here would give almost anything for that, knowing that most of them will graduate from college saddled with a school loan debt that has become a national scandal. And even ‘trade school’ is not just what we think of in the US (auto mechanics, plumbing, hair styling). It includes training for many careers including positions that would require a college degree in the US.
    As a teacher in the United States who is very familiar with the French educational system, pedagogical methods and its product, I can say without hesitation that I would adopt the French system over ours in a heartbeat, given the choice of only one. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, and in many ways (like ours) it is a system in crisis as it struggles with adapting to a changing society. But French education’s discipline and rigor prepare students very well for adult life, and (unlike the US) the system provides desirable options that are unavailable here for a student who is not destined for advanced academic study.
    My ‘deux sous’, offered as an alternate view.
    P.S. Statistically, fewer than one in five French families has more than two children. What we see anecdotally is not always the reality.