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
Gomme
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 www.ma-papeterie.com. 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.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.