French schools: Once upon a time…

It is impossible to discuss French schools without mentioning la rentrée. This is a magical word in the French language, and a special time in French life. La rentrée is when tanned vacationers go back to work, government members go back to whatever it is they do for France, members of trade unions go back to planning demonstrations and strikes (scheduled, like clockwork, throughout the fall.)  It is also the week children go back to school. As a child growing up in France, I used to love la rentrée.

There was so much excitement in the air as my mom, my brother and I went to the local store to buy our school supplies. My favorite part was coming home with new notebooks (les cahiers,) new pencils and pens (les crayons, les stylos,) and, when I was lucky, a new school bag (le cartable.) I still remember the delicious smell of new stationery and leather.

French schools
The [very French] leather “cartable” (school bag)
Robert Doisneau “Cartable Neuf” – 1956
French schools Cartable
Times change but French school children still love their “cartable,”
carried by hand, or on their back

Looking back, I realize that not everyone in French schools was as enthusiastic about la rentrée as I was. My mother was no doubt relieved to get some of her life back. As a stay-at-home mom (and a dedicated one at that,) she spent all of her free time with us. We did not go to summer camp and spent hours playing with the neighborhood kids. There were adventures. There were picnics and fun-filled afternoons. There were fights. Good times. Still, Maman must have dreaded those shopping trips to the store to purchase new clothes and school supplies. My brother did not much care for la rentrée either. He did not care for school, period. We were different, as siblings often are. I was a good student. A professional student, according to my family. I prefer to think of myself as a a lifelong student. 🙂

I have a story to tell today, about a delightful surprise that fell into my lap in the most unexpected place this summer {FGIS note: blogpost originally published in 2011.} I dedicate this story to Education, the people who love it and fight for it. A special thought for French schools. Imperfect, criticized, constantly evolving, the French school system was founded by visionary men, and is based on strong core principles. I never set a foot in a private school, and neither my parents – or I – ever had to pay more than a few hundred dollars per year for my higher education while I studied in France. To everyone in my family, the French public school system seemed good enough, and it was.

French schools kids on their way to school
This could have been Le Brother and me, on the way to our new school
(our family moved a lot.)

Last July, on our way down to Spain, we stopped in Carcassonne, in Southern France. The big draw was the famously well-preserved medieval city. It was so crowded within the old walls that we left and did not return until the evening. Scratch that. The rest of the group left and went back to the hotel. I stayed behind and braved the crowds to explore Carcassonne’s medieval streets. After all, the city was packed during medieval times. You can see it on old pictures. At the end of a small street, I noticed an old building behind a stone wall. It looked like a school. Carcassonne is such a busy, touristy place. I was surprised to find it there. The school, it turns out, closed many years ago, but a dedicated volunteer and former teacher opened a museum in the building. Le Musée de l’Ecole, a museum dedicated to French schools. It is a wonderful place to remember what school was like in the old days for our parents and the generations that preceded them, a great place to understand education in France, and how it evolved over time. The museum focused on school life during the 3rd and 4th French Republics, (roughly from 1875 to 1958 when Charles de Gaulle was elected President of the current 5th French Republic.) As I walked through the metal gate, and off the cobbled street, memories flooded back. Here, I was, in the cour de récréation (playground) of my old elementary school. The hopscotch game (la marelle) still traced on the ground. I looked at le préau (covered playground) and remembered chatting there with my girlfriends on rainy days.

French schools Musée de l'Ecole
French schools Musée de l'Ecole

I entered. A charming volunteer greeted me and informed me: “Pas de photo, s’il vous plaît.” No pictures. Dommage. Fortunately, I took copious notes during my visit and found pictures online to help me describe that incredible place. Imagine five rooms filled with artifacts, photos, posters, old geography maps (still showcasing the French colonial empire) and two full-scale reconstructions of classrooms dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century. There was an extensive collection of old textbooks (les manuels scolaires,) all over 100 years old.  Brocante fans and collectors of used books would have loved the opportunity to get their hands on these!

There were official letters written to the local instituteur (school teacher) by politicians, such as French socialist leader Jean-Jaurès (1859-1914,) a former teacher himself (“The children you have been entrusted with are French. They must know France, its geography, and its history: its body and its soul.“) These documents reflected the involvement of French leaders in education as early as the late 18th century. Teacher training and government support of popular education were a core issue of the French Revolution in 1789. In the following decades, French political leaders including Napoleon, got involved. Then Jules Ferry came along. A lawyer and Minister of Public Instruction in the 1880s, he is widely credited for creating the modern Republican school in France (l’Ecole Républicaine.)

Jules Ferry portrait
Jules Ferry (1832-1893)

Until Jules Ferry, primary and secondary education were two separate entities in French schools. The Catholic church was involved in elementary education at the local level. In the wake of the industrial revolution, Ferry and other leaders realized that there would be a growing need for a skilled workforce. The work day was changing. In a time of political instability, qualified workers would help make the 3rd Republic stronger. The role of French schools would be to educate and train future French citizens. The Jules Ferry Laws revolutionized French education in the late 1880s:

– Mandatory instruction for all French children from 6 to 12 years old (a law passed in 1959 made school mandatory until the age of 16.)

– Free instruction, including all textbooks.

– Secular education (Education laïque).

As a direct result of the Jules Ferry laws, the teaching of civics and ethics replaced daily catechism instruction in French schools. I remember those morning ethics lessons, (“leçons de morale“) and the posters on the classroom walls. Many were displayed at the Carcassonne Museum of School.

French schools. Poster
“Garder un objet trouvé, c’est voler”
(Keeping something you have found is stealing)

Every morning, in French schools, le maître (the teacher) would write a short saying on the blackboard, then comment it for students. A poster at the museum read: “Je serai poli envers tous les membres de ma famille.” (I will be polite to all of my family members.) Another one praised the virtue of hard work: “Les mains noires font manger le pain blanc” (Black hands enable you to eat white bread [representing affluence, prosperity].) Common themes were politeness, honesty, sobriety, cleanliness, respect.

French schools. Blackboard
The blackboard welcomed students in the morning

Jules Ferry placed the responsibility of building and maintaining French school grounds on cities. Until 1919, they paid their teachers directly. Many French villages opened their own school. Sometimes, the school was so small that one dedicated [and respected] instituteur (elementary school teacher) was in charge of teaching several grades. He often lived within the school buildings. This is illustrated in an excellent French documentary, “Etre et Avoir” (To Be and to Have), presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. The movie can be rented in the United States through Netflix, and I highly recommend it.

French schools. Teacher and young students
A scene from “Etre et Avoir”

As I was walking through the Museum of School, I realized how different a typical day in a French public school used to be from what my son experiences here in the United States. For one thing, the school day was a lot longer, and it still is, 9:00 to 5:00pm on an average, with a two-hour lunch break. The atmosphere in the classroom was formal. The teacher’s desk stood on a platform, next to the blackboard. The teacher, the authority figure, dominated the students lined up in front of him. He looked stern, in his grey smock.

French schools. Musée de l'Ecole classroom
La classe
French schools. Teacher and students
20th century classroom: I would not have enjoyed learning math
 with that man!

Let’s meet an écolier (student) circa 1900.

Old school uniform
Short hair (to avoid lice.) A large béret. A warm cape and a scarf. La gibecière, (school bag,) worn across the body. Le sarrau (smock) buttoned up in the back. Thick socks. Short pants, cut at knee length. Les Galoches (heavy leather shoes.) What was inside the students’ bag? His school supplies. All textbooks belonged to the school and were loaned to the students. They owned une ardoise (slate) and practiced their spelling and grammar, or did math operations on it, using chalk.

child writing with chalk on ardoise
They also wrote on several cahiers (notebooks) with lead pencils first, then, once they “qualified” with un porte-plume (pen holder.) Each student’s wooden desk or pupitre  (meticulously polished by the children at the end of each week) included un encrier (small inkwell) filled with purple ink by the teacher or an older student. The students’ fingers were permanently stained by the ink.

Styles of quills
Porte-plume and selection of “plumes”
“La Sergent Major” was pointed, and harder to use than
“la Gauloise” (shaped as a diamond)
Encriers (inkwells), Porte plume (penholder) and bottle of purple ink

In France, where aesthetics are everything, students were expected to keep their notebooks immaculate. There was a proper way to hold a pencil or a pen holder, and calligraphy was taught at an early age. When I started 1st grade, my teacher tried to convince me that I had to write with my right hand (I am left-handed.) Lefties had a reputation for having bad hand-writing. I was stubborn and she gave up. That year, I was proud to become the first student in the classroom who switched from a pencil to a penholder I used to write in beautiful purple ink.

cursive handwriting practice sheet
Letters of the alphabet

While in the United States paper is lined, France has used la réglure Séyès” since 1892. Do you notice the difference?

cursive handwriting
This is what I call a neat notebook!
The student is using un buvard (blotting paper) while writing

At the Museum of School, one of the rooms was a workshop where visitors sat down at small desks and practiced writing in purple ink with a pen holder. I tried and realized I was très rouillée (very rusty.)

School at “la Communale” (public school) was hard work. Typical subjects included: history, geography, math, grammar, spelling, writing, calligraphy, poem recitation, vocabulary, science, art, choir. Les Devoirs (homework) had to be completed in a special notebook. Memorization played an important role in French schools. Hardworking, attentive and respectful students were rewarded with les bons points and les images (picture cards including special messages.) Some had quite the collection by the end of the school year.

school rewards
Collection of “bons points” 
school rewards
“Image” (picture card):  This one shows what to do
 in case of a medical emergency (a cut)

Bad students (les cancres), however, were in for a lot of trouble. Physical punishment was prohibited, theoretically. Public humiliation was not. Punishment for poor work or poor behavior included standing in the corner, back turned on your classmates, with your hands on your head, sitting under the teacher’s desk, wearing a paper or fabric hat known as le bonnet d’âne (dunce’s cap) during the school day.

Dunce hat photo
Student wearing “le bonnet d’âne”. The sign reads: “Paresseux” (lazy)

Horrified yet?

It is tempting to label the French school system inhumane, or at the very least rigorous. Let’s just remember that it was not unusual then for le maître d’école (teacher) to deal with 40 or 50 kids in his classroom. Even though the infamous bonnet d’âne is long gone, most of the students who went through the French education system have memories of being rebuffed (and sometimes humiliated) in front of other students. We all lived in the fear of making mistakes. French schools are not for the faint of heart. I am a strong believer that what does not kill you makes you stronger. The French are notoriously rebellious and don’t hesitate to break rules. They can be very creative when they do so. Is it really that surprising? A blogger friend of mine recently made some very interesting comments about the French and American approach to bureaucracy here.

Do not feel too sorry for our French écoliers of yore. Boys and girls also had fun at school. La récréation (recess) was everyone’s favorite time of day, of course. Boys played with marbles (le jeu de billes). Other popular games included la toupie and le jeu des osselets.

La toupie
Les Osselets

Girls enjoyed la marelle (hopscotch) and la corde à sauter (jumprope.)

La marelle: from la Terre (Earth) to le Ciel (sky)

The last room at the Museum of School was the one that surprised me the most. It showcased a special exhibit about les bataillons scolaires (school battalions.) There were a few other French visitors in that room, and they all looked equally puzzled. We were reminded that following the defeat of 1870 (Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871) France had paid a hefty war indemnity to Germany, and had surrendered Alsace and part of the Lorraine, thus losing 1.6 million inhabitants. The reconquest of the “lost provinces” became a national obsession, culminating in France’s involvement in WW1 in 1914.

The government of the 3rd Republic decided to use elementary schools to train future patriots, young citizens who would, one day, serve the French Republic. Patriotic messages were included in most subjects taught in schools, more noticeably history, geography, and daily ethics and civics lessons (see above.) The importance of respect (of the Law, authority, French institutions) and love of la patrie (the Motherland) were drilled into young brains.

In 1880, physical education (gymnastics) became mandatory in French schools. By 1882, the first bataillons scolaires (school battalions) were created all over France. Even though students had to be 12 years old to participate, younger children could also join in the practice sessions. Battalion members were trained after school hours, using either real rifles or wooden ones. They were provided with uniforms. Training culminated on the day of the July 14th parade (Bastille Day) when local school battalions proudly marched through town.

photo group of kids in uniforms
Bataillon scolaire circa 1885
Illustration kids in uniform
French schools Street parade
Défilé du 14 juillet (July 14th parade)

After a few years, enthusiasm for the movement dwindled. Criticism of the battalions grew louder. Parents and school teachers voiced their concerns. Discipline was too rigid. The patriotic message was not getting across, and students were mainly interested in wearing the beautiful uniforms and handling the guns. The cost of running local programs became too high for a lot of municipalities. By 1892, les bataillons scolaires disappeared for good and were officially replaced in all primary schools by twice weekly PE classes.

Unfortunately, l’esprit revanchard (desire for revenge) and intense patriotism fostered both by the French and the German governments at the turn of the century would only be exacerbated until WW1, the Great War.

Before I left Carcassonne’s Museum of School, I shuddered when I realized that the school children I was seeing on the old faded pictures would become les poilus, (the hairy ones,) the French infantry soldiers during WW1. Many of them were peasants and wore a beard or a mustache, hence their nickname. They were famous for their bravery and endurance and (quelle surprise!) their rebellious spirit. More than 1.4 million poilus would die, during what remains one of the deadliest conflicts in history. They were buried near battlefields and their bodies often could not be brought home. They are remembered all over France thanks to the ubiquitous Monuments aux Morts (war memorials,) listing fathers, sons, cousins and friends killed during the conflict. It seems every French city/town/village has one.

Photo "Poilu"
Young Poilu identified as Gabriel le Pord (born in 1899)
Photo Poilu eating
Un Poilu,  having lunch
War memorial photo
Saint Paul de Vence, August 2011
“Morts pour la Patrie” (they died for France)

Les Poilus are all gone now, but France has not forgotten them. May they play forever on the school grounds of their childhood.

A bientôt.

Musée de l’Ecole (Museum of School)
3 rue du Plô
La Cité
11000 Carcassonne, France
Open year around, 7 days a week

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • V-i want to write SO much here…i fear the length would be TOO much-another TOTALLY great and VERY educational post-as i said before la rentree is a mixed bag, like you, i am a “lifer” with education/classes- but i love the summer, my favorite time of year…i have changed life course a couple of times which involved more and more school and if i am away from it too long…i find a reason to return to the classroom…hence the last 2 years of french instruction-building on my highschool/college foundation…i just hate saying good bye to the easy laid back summer life style. i still smell new text books and copy books-i prefer writing with pencil ( love the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil) so much more to share… alas- it should only be a comment-so in concluding i will say ONE OF THE BEST POSTS E-V-E-R!!

    • I am amazed at your descriptions of the French school life. I was transported into each narrative as a witness to the silent scene being played out in front of me. Remembering my own childhood experience of being put under the teacher’s desk in the first grade, I immediately felt a strong connection to the children you so beautifully revealed. Thank you, for an adventure into your French life. Please continue to share your experiences as a French child and young person.

  • I love the smell of school supplies, the freshly-sharpened pencils, new notebooks, new/old books of all types… I can get almost woozy when I smell a large box (48 count) of Crayolas! We are cut from the same cloth.

    I have been a perpetual student forever and unexpectedly wound up as a university professor for 5 years. Seeking knowledge and understanding, learning a new language, and knowing more about other countries and cultures… photography, art, music, math theory (!)… all keep me young, or at least I claim it!

    I loved this post and have poured over the details. There is no better story than one told first hand as you have done here… fabulous!!


    (off to sniff some crayons)

  • God how I hated school Veronique… but you make your experience sound rather lovely. I never quite fitted in and couldn’t wait to leave!
    But having lived in France I can’t speak too highly of the French educational system or French kids. I think that their manners and their outlook on life put most other nationalities to shame.
    Brilliant post as always.

  • Wow this took me back to my first day of class in France. I was probably around 7…apparently I was a chatter box. All I remember is my teacher’s high heels stomping the wood floor towards me- and a little yank to my hair and that’s all she wrote. I never talked in class again!lol

  • — g — Thank you, friend. I must say this was a special post to me and I had a great time researching it, then writing it. Glad you enjoyed. Sounds like you are another “etudiante professionnelle,” eh?
    — Genie — Thank you for stopping by. I hope you have recovered from smelling all those crayons (it sounds more harmless than smelling glue, I must say.) Another professional student. What is it with us ladies?
    — Olga — You sound like my brother 😉 Thanks for visiting.
    — Craig — You sound like my brother too 😉 Thank you for your kind comments about French children. I know quite a few French moms who would be proud to read this. I am. 😉
    — Sandy — Consider yourself lucky. The teacher “only” yanked your hair. She could have had you wear “le bonnet d’ane” all day. Yikes. 😉

  • Such a wonderful post! I wish we Americans would know our geography and history…body and soul.
    “The children you have been entrusted with are French. They must know France, its geography, and its history: its body and its soul.”

  • Veronique, I am typing this, really quickly before the wifi goes again! Just to let you know I really appreciate your comments and love your blog, I am looking forward to sitting down with a glass of wine and reading all your recent posts, especially your travelogue, which kept appearing in my sidebar, every time I clicked on it the blooming wifi would go again, very frustrating.
    back very soon.

  • — Virginia — Thank you. Coming from a former elementary teacher, this means a lot.
    — Coastalharp — Thank you for visiting. My son was born in the United States and he studies American history and geography at school (6th grade.) It is my job to teach him about France as well. He is very fortunate to have one foot in each country!
    — Dash — Welcome! Hope your wifi connection improves soon. Let me know what you think about the Nice posts, won’t you? I loved your last story on la Villa Ephrussi de Rotschild. Can’t wait to go and visit next year.

  • Véronique ma belle!

    J’ai bien aimé cette histoire de l’éducation française. Tu sais, j’enseigne dans une école d’immersion ici à Minneapolis et j’adore mon boulot. Les enfants s’appliquent (bien sûr, il y en a certains qui ne le font pas…:)

    Mais, cette première semaine de la rentrée, je suis vachement CREVÉE!!! Et toi? Tout ira bien car être prof est super. BELLES PHOTOS, BELLE HISTOIRE; je te souhaite une année pleine de PROGRÈS!!! Merci pour être venue chez moi, Anita

  • — Mariette — Welcome back. Those documents from the French Etat-Civil are amazing. Glad to hear there is also a little bit of French blood running through your veins 😉
    — Anita — Merci pour ton message. Mes cours n’ont pas encore repris et mes eleves (des adultes) sont un peu plus calmes que les tiens! 😉 Ravie que tu aies apprecie mon histoire.
    — Kid in the Front Row — Welcome. You and I have a lot in common. Signed: Another Kid in the Front Row.

  • This was absolutely delightful to a Francophile. I love your next post too. I travel to France a lot to get my fix and just returned. This time as well as visiting Paris (I have a blog dedicated to her) we drove Normandy and Brittany also, two provinces (?) we’d not yet visited. Loved Normandy especially. So regal and imposing.

    I’ve followed you and hope to read many more posts of yours.


  • je découvre ton blog à l’instant —amazing— et si je peux me permettre, j’ai envie de commenter “what does not kill you makes you stronger”. et c’est parce que je n’y crois pas que j’ai scolarisé à la maison chacun de mes cinq enfants à un moment ou à un autre (ce qui n’empêche pas les plus grands d’avoir intégré des écoles d’art intéressantes, les arts décoratifs, entre autres). car l’école est en effet trop rigide et castratrice à mon goût, les enfants sont déresponsabilisés, humiliés (obligés de s’asseoir selon l’ordre alphabétique!!!) et soumis à la pression des notes (en sciences humaines, l’évaluation se fait en fonction du groupe et non de la pertinence du travail rendu) et du classement. bref, une entreprise de démolition et non de construction. ainsi que l’avait conclu un prof de maths dubitatif d’environ 30 ans “selon vous il est bien plus important que votre enfant soit bien dans sa peau que vraiment bon en maths? ou ! (je ne saurai jamais si c’était une question ou une exclamation, nevermind!)”.
    désolée, je devais le dire.

  • — Winterludes — Merci de ta visite. Je t’ai déjà répondu sur ton blog, donc je ne vais pas me répéter ici. Après avoir visité ton blog et vu une sélection de tes créations, je comprends d’où vient le sens créatif de tes enfants! En français, on dit: “Les chats, ne font pas des chiens,” n’est-ce-pas, et tant mieux! Veronique

  • Wow Veronique, a fascinating and wonderful post, I will be revisiting it, all your hard work and research is much appreciated. The French education system is a very hot topic amongst all my British ex pat friends whose children are currently going through it, the complaints are usually negative, the most common one being the teachers reluctance to teach self expression or ‘thinking outside of the box’. Always good for a lively debate between my French and Ex pat friends around the dinner table!

  • –Dash. Thank you. I feel honored you have spent so much time reading my posts today (with a glass of wine, it’s true, but still… 😉 Did you read Winterludes’ comment above? She is a French lady, and she has chosen to homeschool her five kids. This alone says a lot about the French education system. Most French people I know here in Seattle have always claimed the school system was better in America. Then again, most of their kids ended up in private schools… No system is perfect, that’s for sure. Veronique

  • Bonjour, Quel travail de recherche ! Pour moi qui adore découvrir comment les Français sont perçus à l’étranger, leur vie là-bas, ou la vie des anglophones en France, c’est un régal. Stéphanie

  • First I thought; this is long. Do I have the time to read it now? Then I read… and with great pleasure! Bravo to the author! Of course, my own school life did not take place in France, sp my experience of French schools is more related to my kids … and now my grandkids. My just six-year old (today) grandkid, starts real school next week (of course he has been in some kind of school since 3 or 4 years already); he has got his “cartable” and all the material – what an exitement! Hope that he will be as exited about school also the coming years!

    I appreciated your “history lesson” about the public school system, free education for boys – and girls! I just finished a book about Condorcet (700 pages by E and R Badinter) who already before and during the revolutionary years did a lot in this direction. I learnt a lot! As you say, never stop learning… and blogging is one way!

    Have a nice weekend!

    • Well, Peter, you know me: My posts – especially the old ones – tend to be long. 🙂 Glad you decided to stick around and enjoyed your visit. That book about Condorcet sounds promising. I may have to look it up. Come back soon!

  • What a wonderful look into the French school life! Very different from my schools and quite different today in the US. I enjoyed your article very much. I enjoy the history. Times have changed here to be sure. The long school days were surprising. A 2 hours lunch was interesting to read. We Americans tend to rush. But much less time is given here. A valuable lesson could certainly be learned. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment Debra! I am glad you enjoyed this story. The French school system has evolved over time, but the long lunch hour is still there, pretty much. I suspect that will be the last thing to change in my homeland 😉 — A bientôt.

  • Such a wonderful history of school life in France! It really brought me back. I was an American student (5th grade, my father was stationed at a nearby military base) in a small village school (Catholic, girls only) in the Sixties and have dined off the resulting stories my whole life long. The inkwells, the relentless striving for perfect cahier penmanship (I was hopeless), trying to stay out of Ma Soeur’s direct sightline, lunchtime on the cement playground (a corner of which had hay thrown down and also served as the toilets!) I’ll never forget my year there or the friends I made. Thank you so much for bringing me back! I love all your posts but this one hit close to home. In a good way.

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