One of the happy side-effects of becoming a bloggeuse is the number of people who get in touch after they have just moved to France. A fortnight ago I spoke to one such person. Her two young children were due to start school five days after we spoke. She was beginning to feel a little bit uneasy about this, which was perfectly understandable given that a) the only conversation she’d had on the subject (some months earlier) had taken the form of a vague reassurance from the maire that everything would be fine; b) nobody had made it clear whether or not the younger of the two children was eligible for, or expected at, school; and c) there had been no letter, e-mail or text telling her when the school term would begin.
Happily, despite the fact that I live several hundred miles away from the commune in question and, indeed, had never even heard of it before, I was able to answer most of the questions. Yes, I said, because the younger child had been born in 2014, she would be expected at school. Term would begin on lundi 4 septembre. I knew this to be true because the school in question is a state primary school, and such things are governed by edicts from central government, no doubt from the great hand of Emmanuel Macron himself.
About the precise time and location I was less certain (Macron is presumably disinclined to micromanage). I was unable to specify what, if any, school supplies would be needed by each child (though I knew there would be a list). Nor, because of a recent and controversial change in the law, was I able to say whether or not there would be school on Wednesdays. However, all was not lost because the very next day was vendredi 1 septembre, and I did know that, on that particular day, the teachers in question would be found on the school premises, and could therefore be approached for all the answers that I had been unable supply. How did I know this? Well, everyone knows that la rentrée des profs happens on the working day before la rentrée des élèves … don’t they?
When we first put the kids into French school, I found the lack of basic information available bewildering, and read into it a certain degree of hostility towards interlopers. It turns out that I was just being paranoid. Nobody communicates with you about the bare essentials because they are, quite simply, une évidence. When, at the start of our second year, I tried to engage another mother at the school gate in a little bit of cheerful griping about the fact that I had resorted to guessing when the kids needed to show up on the first day, I failed miserably. She looked at me as if I was a bit dim: mais comment tu ne le savais pas ? she asked. Well, nobody told me. Mais tout le monde le sait !
She was right. Tout le monde does indeed sait. This knowledge is not genetic, as I had at first wildly imagined, or even cultural: it’s laid down by central government, or at the very least by the mairie, and, having remained largely unchanged since Napoléon, can be considered to be immutable.
In some ways this monolithic system renders matters much simpler. This August I spent several hours telephoning and e-mailing people to try to arrange our children’s extra-curricular activities for the coming year. The responses, when the people concerned were not on holiday or at lunch, were mildly derisive. Je vous prie, Madame, de vous rendre au forum des associations. OK, fine, but when is this forum? The first Saturday after la rentrée, Madame, comme d’habitude. (Oh yes, silly me.)
The simplicity of having a single day on which people across the entire land can sign up for clubs is, like everything in France, a double-edged sword. Yes, it is convenient for you to know when and where to go without having to ask. However, suggesting to everyone that they do the same thing at the same time and in the same place is ultimately helpful to nobody except the organisers.
The annual forum des associations is home to queueing on an epic scale. If you are English, the sight of perfumed ladies casually wafting into the line in which you have been waiting with only a mild air of martyrdom for twenty minutes is likely to send your blood pressure soaring. When you eventually get to the desk, you need to make sure you have your entire dossier at the ready, otherwise your application for your offspring to do karaté will be sunk for want of a single passport photo, a certificat médical or a stamped-addressed envelope (smiley though those people in jolly t-shirts at the desk may seem, they are ruthlessly unforgiving when it comes to dossiers). And whilst being turned away may not seem so terrible, when you are aware that there are only a limited number of available spaces, that the perfumed lady has taken 75% of them, and that registrations are for the entire year, well… failure doesn’t bear thinking about.
#AllAboutFrance is back on the Lou Messugo blog. To find out more about French ways why not peruse the other blogs on there?