Education in France (#1)

Education in France is definitely different from education in the US :

And also :


In September 2005, a new student enrolled at the Sorbonne : ME!

Read the Webmaster's diary for an insider's view of the French educational system.

 Facts on education in France...   Understanding the "Grandes Ecoles"...
  • In France, kids start school very early : school starts at age 2 (for 52% of children) or 3 (for almost 100%) and children spend 2 or 3 years in maternelle (kindergarten). School is compulsory until age 16. In primary schools, French kids spend more hours a year (almost 900, like Italy and the Netherlands) than other European countries (less than 700 for Austria, Germany and Finland) : in France, less days of school (vacations are a national value) and more hours per day. (see detailed figures) Contrary to a frequent American stereotype, learning by rote does not exist or hardly (it was true in the 19th century). Read about parenting in France.

  • All professors in public schools and universities are employed and paid by the state. The Ministry of Education is, by far, the largest employer in France and (it is said) the second in the world (after the Red Army!). Writes Nadeau : " An outstanding feature of French education is the authority of teachers. The French don't regard childhood as an age of innocence but see it as an age of ignorance. Children must be set straight and corrected."

  • Most schools are public (85%) but there are also private schools throughout France (particularly in the very religious regions of Western and Eastern France). Separation of church and state was decreed in 1905 but Catholic schools continue to coexist alongside public ones - and get state funding for teachers salaries, social security costs, and scholarships. 13.4 % of elementary school children and 20% of high school pupils attend private schools. See French schools abroad and the comparison with other European countries.

  • High school : see the (new) program of French high schools and note that there are few options and few extra-curicular activities. The final exam, the "Baccalauréat" or "Bac" is very important for French students because it gives them access to university studies, with no further selection. It is a rigorous exam with no multiple choice questions : it includes a written part and an oral part, with several subjects each. It lasts up to six days. Less than 20 per cent of those who take it fail (and now many people think it's too easy) and it does not mean anything except it gives access to the university, even for people whose level and motivation are too low. Every year, the "bac" is one of the major events of the month of June and newspapers publish and discuss the subjects in Philosophy and Literature. The French love it and refuse to change it. More in Paris Diary.

  • France has a dual system for higher education : "Universités" and "Grandes Ecoles"; the latter (less than 5% of students) requires very competitive selection entry exams. Click to understand the "Grandes Ecoles" system, which concerns mostly science and business studies. For medical and law studies, there are no Grandes Ecoles but universities have developed selection systems in the course of the studies.

  • Education is almost free at all levels (tuition around $200 a year at Sorbonne : read below) except for private schools and business schools. 26% of university students receive scholarships. But it is a fact that French Universities do not offer as many services and facilities as American universities and from this standpoint, only Grandes Ecoles compare to the US system.

  • The grading system goes from 0 to 20 with 20 being perfect. The grading system is extremely tough. Hardly anyone ever gets a 20 or even an 18 or 19. Teachers read the grades out loud when they hand back homework and tests. School is hard on French children : read in Baudry or in French Toast how it can impact the entire personality of the French. An important thing to know : in France, the grade you get is not aimed at stimulating you to improve but to punish you so you react and get better. This is why sometimes American universities are surprised when the best French student (from the Grandes Ecoles) apply when their grades in math are around 7 or 9 (a C- in France) and, when admitted, get an A+ in the USA!



France has a dual university system : the "Universités" and the "Grandes Ecoles". Grandes Ecoles have no equivalent in the USA.

  • After High School, some students (among the best) apply to be admitted to a "Classe Préparatoire": these classes (located in some High Schools) prepare students (in two or three years) for a very competitive admission test to Ecoles d'Ingénieurs (Sciences), to Business Schools or to a few other kinds of schools. In these classes, students work like dogs (40 hours courses a week + constant tests + personal work, no week-end, etc..) to be admitted to the best possible school. Actually, they work twice more than college students (see numbers). Contrary to what the NYT wrote,most of these preparatory classes are free (read more.) and students enjoy very good working conditions.   Writes Nadeau : ..."French parents don't want to send their children to university. We could not believe this until we understood just what the Grandes Ecoles were. French parents do everything they can to make sure their child won't go to university but will go to a Grande Ecole...."
  • The "Grandes Ecoles" are not part of the rest of the University system : they are smaller, they have much more money (they get 30% of the national university budget with only 4% of the students), they are kept apart from the rest of the educational system, they are based on fierce competition of the students among themselves and the schools between themselves. The most prestigious schools give access to the new French nobility : the "Grands Corps". Their graduates will always be the boss !

  • "Grandes écoles" are close to the labor market and, contrary to the universities, their graduates have little (if any) problem to find a job.

  • The tuition is almost nothing (except in Business Schools where it is around $8 to 10,000 /year). In some cases (Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Nationale d'Administration, Ecole Normale Supérieure), the students are paid a salary (around Euro 2,000 a month). There are many Grandes Ecoles (around 250) but they are very small ; the largest (Polytechnique, HEC, Centrale, Arts et Métiers, INSA,..) have around one thousand students each. The number of students in the Grandes Ecoles represents only a few % (around 5%) of the total number of students.

  • In a nutshell : here is the comparative cursus in Universities and Grandes Ecoles :



Grandes Ecoles

DEUG1 DEUG2 Licence L3 Maitrise M1 Master: DEA or DESS Doctorat
Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5
Classe prép.1 Classe prép.2 First Year Second Year Third Year Doctorat

This organisation in 5 years is common to all European countries. It is called LMD (for "Licence, Maitrise, Doctorat"), with Licence in 3 years, Maitrise in two years and then Doctorat.

Expenses for Education. Regarding university students, and in terms of expenses, a few comparative figures illustrate how France compares with other countries :

  • close to Germany, in the upper part of the European bracket, much less than the USA
  • much less private funding for universirties and for R&D than in the USA
  • more public money for the most selective cursus.

  • Schools do not sponsor extra-curricular activities, or hardly any. The only thing that goes on at school is....schoolwork. This is a major difference with the US system. French universities have much less money than US universities and therefore offer much less activities to the students.

  • All French students study Philosophy in their last year of high school. France is one of the few European countries (with Spain, Italy and Portugal) which requires this. Questions for a 4-hour dissertation in 2003 : "Is dialog the path to truth ?", "Why are we sensitive to beauty?", "Is happiness a private matter?". Paris has many cafés where people discuss philosophical topics, with the help of a moderator.

  • Math is the yardstick by which performance is measured. Even though a student may be of a literary bent, he or she will probably choose the "Bac S" (the math "bac") because it is seen as the best. The good side of it is that a quite high proportion of great mathematicians are French (9 Fields Medal winners out of 44) and math is one of the domains where France can challenge the USA !

  • French high school teachers are not in school all day long. They come to give their courses and then leave. They do not have office hours. In French schools it is common for teachers to tell children they are nuls (zeroes). This may become a thing of the past as the French come to grips with the problem of battered and abused children. Some psychologists and children's defenders are now making the link between negative treatment at school and child development.

  • The " collège unique " is an excellent example of France's rather dogmatic policies (in France, " collège " is junior high school) : in the 1970s, it was decided (Loi Haby) that all children in French high schools should be in the same classes whatever their respective level : you cannot have classes composed solely of children with learning problems, or immigrant children just arrived from their country, or particularly intelligent students, etc.. All classes must be mixed. The reason : priority to equality. The consequence : serious problems with classes, particularly in neighborhoods where the number of immigrants is high and their knowledge of French insufficient. In spite or because of the wish for equality, this law results in inequality. This is re-inforced by the "carte scolaire" : until an attenuation to the rule by N.Sarkozy, you must send your children to a school in the zone where you live. Thousands of parents do everything they can to escape this regulation (including renting a phony residence next to a better school).

  • In France, most schools are given the name of an illustrious personality. The decision is made by the local authorities on a proposal made by the teaching staff. It is interesting to see the names of the people the French think represent best their educational system. The most popular, with hundred of schools named after them, are Jules Ferry, Jacques Prévert, Jean Jaures, Jean Moulin, Jean de La Fontaine, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean Monnet, Pierre et/ou Marie Curie. Click on the names for more details and here for statistics about the names of schools.

  • The Erasmus program allows European students to study for up to a year in another European country for full credit and at no extra cost.

  • The most prestigious Grandes Ecoles are Ecole Polytechnique (called "X"), Ecole Normale Supérieure ("Normale Sup") and Ecole Nationale d'Administration ("ENA", a post-graduate college), whose initial missions are to train respectively military engineers, university professors and high ranking state officials. They are followed by Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), Ecole des Mines, Ecole Centrale, Institut d'Etudes Politiques, etc...

  • France is practically run by people who graduated from X or ENA (sometimes both) :

    the President of France (until 2007), and the Prime Minister, most of the cabinet members, most CEO of major companies (more than 30 out of the 40 companies of CAC-40, the index of the Paris Stock Exchange).

    ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration)

    A callous pun about ENA... (credit)

    (the joke is that ANE means "ass")

    was created after WW2 to ensure a democratic recruitment of top ranking civil servants. As of today, it has become an aristocracy in itself. Around 100 students graduate every year. Read a few quotes about ENA.

  • Grands Corps : at the end of the studies at X (Ecole Polytechnique), there is a ranking and the students choose an "Ecole d'Application" (the first ten or so : Ecole des Mines, the next fifteen of so : Ecole des Ponts & Chaussées, etc...) ; at the end of ENA, same thing : first ten or so : Inspection des Finances, then Conseil d'Etat, etc.... Then, for the rest of their carreer, the best students belong to one of these powerful "Grands Corps" (literally : great bodies) : Corps des Mines (X + Ecole des Mines), Inspection des Finances (ENA), Corps des Ponts (X + Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées), Cour des Comptes (ENA). A "Corps" is a sort of association, in charge of managing the career of its members, in competition with the other "Corps" (once you're in a "Corps", the rest of the world does not exist...).

  • In some countries, the most prestigious positions go to lawyers, in others to architects : in France, most of the leading positions are occupied by people with an engineering degree, very often civil servants or former civil servants, members of a "Grand Corps" ! Read about working with the French and politics and see the detailed figures in 2008.

  • Some of the best French "grandes écoles" have been successfully duplicated in China : read more.

  • More to come

  • In France, it is much more frequent than in the USA to repeat a year (by far the highest rate of OECD countries : at the end of High School, 17% of the kids have repeated at least once) : if you do not adjust to a class and if your grades are not good enough, you have to do it again...
  • Click here for a very detailed chart of the French educational system, from First Grade to College.
  • Click here to see how French High Schools teach economics.
  • More to come....

DID YOU KNOW THAT....... ? Almost all three-year-olds go to school; approximately 35% start at age two ; "la maternelle", which consists of the 3 years before primary school, is very largely attended in France. It would, in fact, be hard to imagine a four-year-old French child not attending school! "Overall, 98% of children between 3 and 5 are in school in France", writes James Corbett in "Through French Windows". This compares to 50% in the U.S. Since our children attended French schools all the way through, starting at the tender ages of two and three, we can testify that, far from being traumatized as my wife thought they might be, they loved every minute of it!



DID YOU KNOW THAT....? In France, if someone says he/she is an "ingénieur", it does NOT mean he/she can fix your car. An "ingénieur" is not an "engineer". It means that he/she studied in one of the "Grandes Ecoles" and it is quite prestigious. If it's one of the best of these schools, it is very likely that he/she is incapable of fixing your car but that, after having succeeded in a very competitive academic cursus, he/she is a manager in a good-to-high position. The French have very subtle codes to make you figure out which school they went to.

Clouds over the French university system !   Why a dual system ?

The French system is more and more criticized. A recent report by two prominent French economists (Ph.Aghion & E.Cohen, 2004) lists six reasons of what it is not exaggerated to call a very serious crisis :

  • Students are neglected : financially speaking, the French system has privileged high-schools versus universities : in 2000, the ratio of expenses per university student/high school student is the lowest in developed countries :

    Sweden : 2,4
    USA : 2,3
    Japan : 1,7
    UK : 1,6
    Germany : 1,6
    Spain : 1,3
    Italy : 1,1
    France : 1,1
  • Decline of universities : more and more students (2,13 million in 2000) but more and more in the Grandes Ecoles and in the shorter education cursus ; the dual system cannot address the new issues, since the Grandes Ecoles are too small and too specialized and short cursus do not contribute enough to research

  • A failure of the mass educational system : too many drop-outs and people who did not get any degree : every year 90,000 out of 750,000 ; as a result, the vision of the future of young French people is one of the most negative among advanced countries (see a comparative poll)

  • A serious loss of prestige for French universities : in spite of their 12% of foreign students (rank 2 in Europe after UK) , the French universities no longer attract the best students from the whole world; the recent ranking made by the University of Shanghai of the 500 best universities of the world is awful for the French national pride (the best one ranks 65th) : the good teaching and research centers are too small, and the big universities are not good enough ;

  • The competition from US universities : more prestige, more research and more services attract the best students and give them a better preparation ; in the US, the student/teacher ratio is similar to France (around 9) but the student/(service and technical staff) ratio is 3, compared to 40 in France (!!) ;

  • Lack of money : the cost of a student at the Sorbonne is 33 times less than the cost of student at Princeton. As J.R.Pitte, the former president of the Sorbonne, jokingly emphasized, each student has an average of 2,6 sq. meters (24 sq. ft) when a "poulet de Bresse" (a high quality chicken, with the AOC label) demands 90 sq. ft. to keep the precious label !

  • not enough preparation for active life (except in "Grandes Ecoles")

Some recent changes ....

The French educational system must change to face serious challenges :

  • Since 2008 (LRU Law), universities can become "autonomes" : more budgetary autonomy, more flexibility to appoint professors, possibility to raise money through private foundations. Most of them did, but some of them (including the Sorbonne) turned down this opportunity. To understand why, read my "Diary of an old student"

  • Since 2004, universities can become a "grand établissement", a status between university and grande école (already the status of Institut d'Etudes Politiques). One of the best French universities, Paris-Dauphine, did.

  • Universities are encouraged to create joint structures (called PRES) among themselves and Grandes Ecoles, to benefit from the quality of research in universities and the quality of management in Grandes Ecoles. A "Plan Campus" has been launched to improve the quality of French campuses, etc...


France is the only country with such a system for Universities. Why ?

  • A " Grande Ecole " was created everytime the need for specialists could not be satisfied by universities

  • From the mid-XVIIIth Century : to build harbours and bridges ("Ecole des des Ponts et Chaussées" as early as 1747), to improve artillery ("Ecole Polytechnique"), to exploit mines ("Ecoles des Mines"), to develop industry ("Ecoles Centrales" and "Ecoles des Arts et Métiers"), to train managers ("Ecoles de Commerce"), etc..

  • Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, universities created their engineering and their business departments

  • The inability of French University to reform is not recent : King François Irst founded the "Collège de France" in 1530 to host disciplines which were rejected by the university. Five centuries later, it is still one of the most prestigious research centers in the country, and it is not an university.

  • In a nutshell, today's French system includes three kinds of entities :

    • 84 Universities : free, no selection, no money, no connexion with the job market, too crowded, cut off from the real world

    • Around 250 Grandes Ecoles : generally free, most very selective, adequately funded, well adapted to the job market, not enough research, too small, forming a new aristocracy
    • A handful of large state research organizations (CNRS, INSERM, CEA, etc) : forming joint teams with universities and Grandes Ecoles but often too bureaucratic and too cut off from the economic world

The Shanghaï trauma :

  • With the criteria of the University of Shanghai, the ranking of French universities is very disapointing : only 4 in the first 100 universities in the world.

  • The detailed ranking for French universities is : Paris VI, Paris XI, Strasbourg I, Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris, Collège de France, Grenoble I, Paris VII, Toulouse III, Montpellier II, Bordeaux I, Bordeaux II, Ecole Polytechnique, Lyon I, Paris V, Ecole Normale Supérieure Lyon, Aix-Marseille II, Ecole de Chimie Paris, Aix-Marseille I, Nancy I, Ecole des Mines Paris, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice.

  • In France, research organizations are OUTSIDE the university. As shown on this page, the French system must be improved but still this Shanghaï ranking is adapted to American-type universities. It favors the number of publications in English - speaking reviews and the number of Nobel prizes; French universities are smaller and French-public research is largely done in public agencies (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique CNRS, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale INSERM, INRIA for computer science, etc..) which do not belong to French Universities although many labs are common. For instance, the two last French Nobel Prizes (Chauvin, Chemistry, 2005 and Fert, Physics, 2007) do their research at CNRS and will not contribute to improve the Shanghaï ranking of any university ! See the detailed ranking of French research institutions : it must be improved but it is not as bad as the Shanghai ranking might suggest !

  • The only field in which a French university is the world leader is Mathematics (Paris-6 is #1 and Paris-11 is #13). Read why the French are good in maths.

  • More about rankings....

  • More to come...

  • More money is poured into the university system (the "Grand Emprunt" representing an additional 11 billion Euros) but, more interestingly, for the first time only to the best and not "money for everyone" as before

  • All cursus are now adapted to the (new) European format, called LMD (L for "licence", M for "Maitrise", D for Doctorat). Programs are divided in semesters (6 for a "licence", plus 4 for a "Maitrise", i.e. 5 years), and most "unités de valeur" are (or will be) pooled among all European universities, in order to encourage students to accomplish part of their cursus in a foreign university.

  • Foreign students : there is a global competition to attract the best students and American universities are leaders but French universities are trying to catch up, with programs such EduFrance. The visa policy is loosened (after the stupid anti-immigration policy of the early 1990s with the Pasqua law) and more students come from Eastern Europe and Asia (multiplied by 10 between 1996 and 2003 for Chinese students). Meanwhile, the number of foreign students in the USA dropped dramatically after 9-11.

IN A NUTSHELL..... French universities are changing dramatically but don't mention it : in France, changing is not a positive value and major evolutions are always subreptitious. But I bet that in ten years most of the most absurd aspects described above will have disappeared.

   DID YOU KNOW THAT.....? In France, there is NO selection at all to be admitted to college. Contrary to "grandes écoles" (see above), anybody having passed the "baccalaureat" exam is entitled to be admitted to any university. This is of course absurd and it explains why French universities are over-crowded (at least for the first two years) with a rate of drop-out of 50% or more, the worst being Medical School where only one student out of five passes the first year exam. The project of setting up a selection process for admission to universities is one of these ever-lasting controversial ones the French cherish : the right wing is for it and the left wing strongly against (in the name of equality and democracy). Young students, who are not helped in their orientation, are the primary victims and nothing changes....The President of the university recently mentioned in an article the drop-out rate at the Sorbonne : 73% the first year, 47% the second year, 42% the third year. This is the price of the myth of "No selection".
 To related pages : more on education (#2), main issues for education (#3), French attitudes, French issues, intercultural differences, try my French Quiz, learning French, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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