French Education

The U.S. has SOLs and the SAT. In the French education system, if you want to do anything beyond Lycée (France’s high school equivalent), you have to pass le bac, an entrance exam for students planning to attend university.

As usual, we are learning as we go. The end of my son’s second year is almost finished, and as he has decided to stay in the French education system to finish school, we had to seek out educational opportunities. We were still trying to figure out how the French education system works; we have learned that obtaining the French Baccalauréat is almost a must.

His first year in France, he entered the French education system in Terminale S (S for science) with an agreement that he would not take the Bac. The private school didn’t want to bring their overall scores down, and with his entry level of French, it’s certain he would not obtain a good “note.”

After one academic year and a weekly private French course, his oral and written French were better than mine were after two years (learning as I go; no French course for me). Then it was time to move on. Well….

Easier said than done. That agreement not to take the Bac bit us you-know-where. There are very few options for a serious student who has not passed the Bac. To enter university, it’s a must; to enter most other types of specialized schools, it’s a must. So we went backwards a bit.

He decided to redoublé, repeat a year, and entered Première. This would allow him a year to prepare for the French Bac exams, taken at the end of Première, and then a year in Terminale to prepare for the final Bac. He wasn’t too happy about this at first, but there is a silver lining.

First, his French language skills after the one year spent in a private French school were excellent. Second, he could have applied to some schools that are more hands-on and geared toward his chosen field, design or art. We were looking at options for him to go into a two-year Bac prep program with an art and design focus. The French education system is so different from the U.S. system, I was trying to get him to look at it as not taking two steps back, but rather as getting some really interesting and focused training in his chosen field while preparing for the Bac. Yes, this means he would lose one year before being eligible for university, but what’s one year for an 18-year-old? After two years living in Europe, I’m finally losing that American mentality of “this is the way Americans do it.”

There were other options. He could enter an international program and get OIB, option internationale du baccalauréat, which he could take entirely in English. This is an internationally recognized option of the French Bac. If we had followed this option when he first arrived, I might have considered it; but now that he’s fairly fluent in French, it seems right to both of us that he should just continue in a French school. Also, the one program that we found that offers this option is private and very expensive, about 22,000 euros for one year.

We also discovered the option of the IB, International Bac, partly in English and partly in French. We found a two-year program in the International section of a public school (meaning FREE). But it’s a general education program. This would feel more like he’s repeating a year, as he would be taking the same subjects he’s already had.

In the end, we decided on the IB, and he entered Lycée Georges Duby in Aix-en-Provence. It has turned out to be an excellent choice. He takes a few courses in English, and the rest in French, including a French course designed especially for non-native speakers, to help him prepare for the French Bac at the end of Première.

We were fortunate to get a place in this school, as we were told by the director that more than 6oo students apply for 1oo places. We are finding this to be the norm in France–acceptance to high school is not a given; you have to find an opening and gain acceptance, particularly if you haven’t moved up through the system or are looking to change schools.

The course work is rigorous, as the Bac is rigorous. But despite the work load, my son is enjoying the school. He attends with students from all over the world, as this section is international. It’s a cultural, as well as an educational, experience.

And the fact that he’s losing a year, by U.S. standards, no longer seems to be an issue. The educational and cultural experience is making up for any perceived loss of time.

Becoming Yourself in France

I read a great article on “My French Life – Ma Vie Française” about finding your true self-identity while living in another country.

In “France: a place where you can become yourself?” Australian writer Lina Vale writes about finding oneself by living in a foreign country. She notes that France seems to be a place where individualism is embraced and creativity expressed.


Interestingly, it’s a conversation I’ve had with myself frequently since moving to France. I’ve often thought that moving outside of my native culture into a totally different environment has forced me to reflect on who I am, what I believe, and what’s really important to me.

Vale writes about reinventing oneself in a new culture, and while some may choose to do so, I don’t believe it’s about reinvention, but about self discovery.

It may be that living outside of one’s native culture strips away the outer layer of superficialness and reveals the true inner self. Perhaps being faced with an environment completely different from one’s own forces one to question one’s self, priorities, and beliefs. This has certainly been true for me.

When everything familiar is removed, it forces one to question, who am I, and how do I fit into this place? It may be this process that reveals true identity.

Based on conversations with persons who have travelled outside of their countries, a similar experience may occur. Anytime we move through unfamiliar territory it can open new perspectives to us. I recall my daughter talking about this after a trip to Peru. She met people who had very little in the way of material possessions, yet she said they seemed so happy, were so affectionate and caring. It changed her perspective about what was really important to her.

Have you had a similar experience living or traveling in another country? Post your comments. I would love to hear about your experiences.

Thanksgiving in France

This post is a bit delayed, but I wanted to post anyway, just because it was such a memorable evening. Sifting through photos this week reminded me and made me laugh. (Click photos to enlarge)

No, Thanksgiving is not a French holiday (obviously), but I did celebrate this historical American holiday in November with my French family and friends. I invited my French guests for a true American Thanksgiving feast. They loved it. First, my very French brother-in-law showed up wearing a red, white and blue striped American flag button-shirt. His daughter had found a flag skirt somewhere, which she coupled with black sequined ballet shoes. Her school friend wore a flag T-shirt. American Flag Shirt Then the rest of the guests arrived–some good friends. The ladies were wearing matching red cowboy hats decorated with red glitter stars. Everyone was ready for the American dinner party. ThanksgivingHats Just for fun, I had decorated the table and dining room in all of the flag paraphernalia I own, including some things I had picked up at the dollar store during my last visit to the States, just for such an occasion. On the menu: baked turkey breast (I couldn’t find a whole turkey), butternut squash soup, greenbean casserole, rice and cornbread dressing (made with chicken and it’s stock), cranberry-orange relish, sweet potato casserole, cinnamon applesauce, spiced fruit bread and chocolate covered gingerbread. The favorite was definitely the sweet potato casserole (Paul Dean recipe. I didn’t bother trying to explain Paula Dean). This was quite a surprise to me, because the French don’t usually eat what they call sugar-salty. Sugar is NEVER eaten before the meal and the cheese. By the way, I did not serve cheese after the meal… and no one complained! Several guests asked for the sweet potato casserole recipe and someone even asked for the dressing recipe. Oh my! I have arrived! I’ve never been asked for a recipe in the three years I’ve lived here. I even played classic Christmas music in the background–rather boring compared to the live guitars and Spanish and French music we usually enjoy on our dinner occasions. It was a nice evening, and for the first time since I’ve lived in France, it felt like Thanksgiving. Even if it was a bit bizarre. ThanksgivingTable  

Carte de Sejour, Finally! BUT…

February 26, 2013. That’s the date the eternally angry lady at the sous-prefecture slid my French carte de sejour across a desk–her brows wrinkled and lips tight–and turned away without so much as an aurevoir. I picked up the newly minted, crisp piece of plastic with my photo and French credentials, smiled wide enough to catch the attention of the soured fonctionnaire, and kissed my card with a loud “smack.”

No reaction. No smile. No felicitations. Nothing. Not even a nod in my direction.

But her bad day, bad year (I suspect, bad life), could not spoil my moment. I had waited nearly two years for this day, and I was finally holding, in my hands, an official piece of plastic that identified me as a resident of France.

If you’re not familiar with the carte de sejour, you have no idea of the power it holds for an étranger. With this card, I can finally get health insurance (sécurité sociale), declare myself as an autoentrepreneur (self-employed), pay French taxes… okay, so it’s not all wine and cheese.

So why has it taken nearly two years to get this gem? The short, not-so-sweet answer is The French Government. The long answer is more complicated and requires some explanation of the process.

First comes the visa. And this is very important. You must obtain a visa, regardless of your situation, to enter the country if you plan to stay more than 90 days (for Americans). As soon as you enter the country you must immediately start applying for the carte de sejour. I cannot stress this enough. It take 3 months, at least, to get this document, so you need to start the process as soon as you arrive.

The first carte de sejour is not really a cart de sejour. It’s a sticker in your passport that basically validates your visa and allows you to stay in the country for one year. While there’s lots of paperwork, getting this authorization is not too difficult. But don’t get comfy; the next year they get really strict.

Three months before your one year is complete, you must again start the process for obtaining/renewing the carte de sejour. This time the paperwork is different, and the process is more strict. Now you have to provide proof of your ability to stay in the country: income, proof of residence, proof of marriage (in my case), etc. And it’s not as simple as it sounds. Only certain documents are accepted.

In my case, for example, they wanted to see everything in both names of me and my spouse. I had no idea of this and so had not prepared. I moved to France to marry a man who’s lived his entire life here. Everything was in him name and we saw no need to change that… until we visited the sous-prefecture in Arles. The next few months were a mad scurry to get everything in both names. Warning: nothing happens quickly in France.

In addition, they questioned why I did not have security sociale. Well, the folks as security sociale wanted the carte de sejour. This merry-go-round is very common in the French administration.

Long story, short: it took six months to get the card after the initial visit to the sous-prefecture.

So, finally, I have my piece of pink plastic, and even the sour-puss admin at the sous-prefecture could not squash my enthusiasm. France was now open to me! Then I arrived home to show the card to my husband. The card is marked “temporary.”

And, the issue date is Feb. 26, 2013. The application date is July 1, 2012, and the expiration date is July 1, 2013.

I can rest for one month–paperwork and sous-prefecture-free–and then I get to start the process all over again.

As they say in France, c’est la vie!