La Rentrée en France: Back to School… and Strikes

The official back to school shopping list for all French public school students is not only a lesson in vocabulary, but also in culture.  Most people know that France is a very centralized country and that all roads (and railroads) lead to Paris. The academic calendar is set in stone for the three zones of France years in advance and the school curriculum is essentially the same throughout the entire country. The joke about every student studying the same subject from the same textbook at the same time everywhere in France isn’t exactly true, yet take a look at the specificity of the school supplies that parents are supposed to buy for their children:

Fournitures : Qualité type attendue
Grand cahier 96 pages (21 x 29,7 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Grand cahier 96 pages (24 x 32 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Petit cahier de 96 pages (17 x 22 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Feuillets mobiles perforés (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Copies doubles perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Cahier de musique de 48 pages (17 x 22 cm)
Classeur rigide (21 x 29,7 cm) : Cartonné recyclable
Classeur souple (21 x 29,7 cm) : Plastique
Protège-cahiers (17 x 22 – 21 x 29,7 – 24 x 32)
Pochettes transparentes perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : Lot de 90 à 100
Rouleau de plastique pour couvrir les livres
Stylos à bille : 1 bleu, 1 noir, 1 rouge, 1 vert – pointe moyenne
Crayons à papier : H.B. – bout gomme
Pochette de 12 crayons de couleur
Pochette de 12 feutres de couleur : Lavables, sans solvant, non toxiques
5 tubes (10 ml) de gouache – 5 couleurs primaires : Peinture à l’eau
Stylo correcteur
Bâton de colle – lot de 2 à 4 : Non toxique – sans solvant
Rouleau de ruban adhésif : Sans dévidoir
Porte-vues – 21 x 29,7cm – 40 à 60 vues : Matière plastique ou recyclée

I certainly don’t remember my back to school lists being this specific. Teachers just told us to buy a notebook or folders or colored pencils. I was never told dimensions or numbers of pages or stapled, not glued. Maybe things have changed since my school days (I graduated high school in 2000), but somehow I don’t think American schools are quite as exigeant with their school supplies as l’Education Nationale in France.

I’ve worked in 3 high schools, 2 middle schools and 1 university in France and I can attest to the fact that all students use the same pens, plastic rulers, glue sticks, notebooks, sheets of paper, etc. Students may not all be studying math at 10 AM on Tuesday mornings, but they most likely are all using the same blue pens and grid paper and not one will attempt to draw a line without using their ruler, or without asking where exactly on the page to draw it. To Americans, this rigidness seems like a lack of imagination or creativity, whereas to the French, it is essential to suivre le modèle and not step out of line (or color outside of the lines).  I’m not saying that one country’s education system is better than the other – because I have a lot of problems with both – but maybe we should strive to be more like Finland instead. Just sayin’!

To learn school supply vocabulary online, I recommend browsing paper store websites such as You’ll notice that certain supplies that are common in the US don’t actually exist in France or aren’t used very often (two-pocket folders, spiral notebooks, lined paper).

Another facet of French culture that is evident at this time of year? Strikes! Even though everyone is just returning from summer vacation and going back to work and school this week, there is already a nation-wide strike scheduled for Tuesday. I love you, France, because you make me laugh and cry at the same time.

  • Anna

    Thanks for those articles, Jennie. The one about coloring inside the lines both cracked me up because it rings very true and makes me worry for my son–I have a feeling he has inherited my lack of talent for penmanship and coloring inside the lines!

    It almost makes me want to move to Finland.

    I’m looking forward to shopping for all those school supplies, though, I love that stuff too.

    • I love school supply shopping too! Too bad it’s so expensive in France and I don’t really need anything… but I’m sure I will buy some stuff anyway.

  • The list isn’t that foreign to me as an Australian. In Australia individual schools do the book list. Usually the teachers decide at the end of the previous year and give it to the students before the holidays so the parents can either order or go off and buy their supplies. They do go into details about page number and dimensions of the book, but not stapled or the paper’s weight. But then again…I’m a stationery nut so I love this stuff.

    • That’s really interesting, and helpful to have the list before vacation so you can get ready earlier instead of waiting until the last minute. We never had lists before school started – we just had to write down what the teacher told us on the first day of school and then go out and buy the stuff.

  • Penny

    Well, as a parent, a nice specific list makes life a lot easier than a vague one. And for the kids (and I am talking primaire here) its comforting as they know they’ll have the same stuff as their friends…and who wants to look different at that age!

    • Good point Penny! I can imagine it would make it much easier rather than letting the kids decide what type of things they want and what color and what brand, etc. (We have so many choices in the US for these types of things!)

  • Kim: a kiwi in france

    We had structure to our lists too in New Zealand. Each book had a handy number on it so our lists were more like English 2x1B5’s and a 1B5 was a standard lined book of such and such dimension with so many pages, the same with maths 2x? whatever the number was for gridded maths books. Occasionally other subjects needed different sized books, so they stated this with the corresponding book number. But I do agree with the students needing to be told where to write and which colour pen etc. I found it fascinating when I was at a lycée the students were tidily writing things in their books and using white-out when they made a tiny mistake, no lines through the writing!

    • I can see how it would be more structured in a country like NZ with such a small population. Is the school curriculum the same throughout the country? In the US, it differs for each state and sometimes even each school district (or whether the school is public or private or charter).

      12 year-olds using white-out was very bizarre to me. I kept telling them just to write in pencil and erase but none of them would do it.

  • Zhu

    When I was in middle school in the 80s, most school supplies were supplied by the school. We were all given pens (stylo bic), pencil etc.

    Somehow, this stopped in the early 90s and the liste des fournitures became this huge ridiculous thing.

    • I remember that we had to buy pencils, scissors, notebooks and stuff like that, but things like paste or textbooks were always provided by the school. I still think it’s weird that public school students in France have to buy their own textbooks. That should only be at the university level.

  • Have you seen the latest issue of Newsweek??? Finland kicked EVERYONE’S asses! 😀 I seem to recall they were #1 on education, amongst many other things (if they weren’t #1, they were close). It’s on newsstands now, but it also seems they have it available online as well:


  • I wonder if the parents who are likely to give their children toxic, sniffable glue get as far as reading that part on the list.

    In the UK, schools still give out all of the stationery apart from pens and pencils. I’m happy that in one small way, we might be more socialist than the French!

    • I know! I really don’t see why they need to specify that you should buy NON-toxic supplies for your kids. Um, shouldn’t parents know that already? LOL!

  • Muriel

    Very interesting reflection indeed, on how school kids are encouraged to ‘not step out of the line’.
    And it is reflected in the way the adults think. I can always predict what a French person is going to say in a conversation.
    This should be the subject of an essay!

    • That’s true about adults too – the French are taught at a young age to be a certain way and they rarely change when they reach adulthood. It’s sad in a way, but I’m sure that’s just because I’m still very American in my “anyone can do anything” pattern of thinking.

  • Hi Jennie, I have always loved that my kids’ school supplied nearly everything, but older kid starts secondary this year and the list of stuff she needs is almost as great as yours above.

    Do you remember I mentioned I was coming to Annecy for summer hols? We were there for two weeks up until yesterday – we were stunned at how the season ended on Aug 31 – the summer luge shut down, the beach at St Jorioz was open but free and unmanned whereas just the day before it had been €5 for admission. We didn’t miss out on anything we wanted to do, just found it amusing the way it was full-tilt one day then autumn the next.

    Oh, and you might remember me asking about a science place for kids to visit in Annecy? We tracked it down, it is La Turbine in Cran Grevier.

    Best wishes


    • Yes, life in France radically changes as soon as September arrives! Everything in this country is affected by the school and work rentrée, even if some of us didn’t actually have a vacation or need a rentrée…

      La Turbine! I’ve been to the library and movie theater there, but I never realized there was more to it. I’m glad you guys found it!

  • Jennie,

    I didn’t realize that French rentrée kit was so specific, but I definitely had a similar experience when I was in francophone Switzerland (97-98) for a year as a high school student.

    I will never forget how all of my classmates had proper “trousses” for their six different color pens, protractors, pencils, erasers and whatever.

    Me? I was the punk kid from California who showed up in sandals with two pairs of socks in winter and did everything (including math homework) in black pen. 🙂

    • Ha! I can imagine that. I still laugh to myself sometimes when I see my university students with their cute little pencil cases.

  • Yeah! Finland usually comes out near the top in country rankings, year after year. Can’t wait to go there and see why!