By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
School in the French Republic is truly something new for us.
We got our first taste of it before we even exited the airport in Paris. Our customs agent, a bearded fellow in his late 50s, carefully studied Erika’s passport. Too carefully, we thought. When he saw her sister Nathalie’s, he blew up.
“They’ll be going to school, these little ones?”
It wasn’t exactly a question. But it wasn’t a mere observation, either.
“Yes, of course,” we answered.
“But school started yesterday.”
“Yes, we know,” we said, trying hard to sound deferential.
“But they are late!”
“Well, we have to register them at City Hall, then they’ll start right away…”
“It’s unheard of!” (The famous French ça ne se fait pas!).
We started to explain that we had already talked to the school’s principal, and that he said it was okay if they arrived a few days late, but we immediately realized our efforts were futile. Doing his best to look appalled, he turned to one of his colleagues, and raised his eyebrows.
It was a good thing we didn’t try to explain why we were arriving two days late for school: prices for plane tickets to Paris fell 25% the day after school started. We felt our little cost-saving maneuver was a tolerable transgression since we had pre-registered the girls at the neighbourhood school and gone to the trouble of meeting the principal during a business trip to Paris.
The day after we arrived, we headed to City Hall to officially register the girls, and get this – to sign your child up for school in France you need to provide proof of residence, in the form of a gas/electricity bill (it’s one bill). You can’t present a telephone bill. It’s not trustworthy since phones are now privately operated. Only power bills are considered reliable: they emanate from a state monopoly.
The problem is, to get an electricity bill in France, you need a bank account. But to open a bank account, you need – that’s right – proof of residence, in the form of an electricity bill.
It’s a vicious immigration triangle. Basically, to move to France you need to convince someone to bend the rules for you. For us, this came in the form of a soft-spoken and sympathetic city hall employee who accepted our application for an electricity account as proof of residence. We had to promise her we’d provide a real bill when we got one.
The First Day of School
We thought it wise to give our 10-year-old daughters a few basic vocabulary lessons (they speak Quebec French) before shipping them off to French school. In France, erasers are gommes, not effaces as in Quebec; pencil sharpeners are taille-crayons, not aiguise-crayons: snacks are called goûters and not collations.
The girls’ school happens to be located directly across the street from our apartment in the 5th arrondissement so we have a birds-eye view on French school life. Every morning, parents hustle by, dropping their kids off at school. Over the course of the afternoon, they arrive in a noisy, staggered procession. School in Paris finishes at three different times – not including lunch, from 11:30 to 1:30, when some parents (or grandparents) bring their kids home. Otherwise, they pick them up at 3:00, 4:30, or 6:00p.m. depending on what activities and programs they are signed up for. As we would soon learn, Paris parents have a lot of choice.
This was one of our first surprises. We expected school to be extremely rigid, and days to be absolutely uniform. Instead, we had to makes choices even before our girls entered their classroom. Children can eat at the school cafeteria everyday or some days or not at all (most do everyday, so we said yes to that). Tuesdays and Fridays they have free after-school activities (yes, again). Then they have the option of “supervised study” from 4:30 to 6p.m., (we said yes for three days).
For drop-off and pick-up, the school principal is always at the door, available for questions. He was a bit confused when, on the first day, we showed him the girls’ report cards from Quebec. None of the school years match – except la maternelle, kindergarten. Primary school in France starts with CP (cours préparatoire, Grade 1), then CE1 and CE2 (cours élémentaire, Grade 2 and 3), then CM1 and CM2 (cours moyen, Grade 4 and 5). The next four years (Grades 6-9) are collège, and they are counted down from 6th to 3rd, then there are three years of lycée (Grades 10-12), also counted down: from deuxième to première, and finally, terminale.
It wasn’t clear which year our girls should be in. French children start school at age 3 or 4, instead of 5 like in Canada so the kids Nathalie and Erika’s age are actually a year ahead. Our girls could have been in CM2 with other 10-year-olds, or CM1, their actual school level. We put them in CM1 so they wouldn’t have to struggle with academics and culture shock at the same time. Turns out French children learn more French, but less math, so the girls are challenged, but not too much.