Thursday, 1 January 2015

On Being French

In French schools, students are graded constantly and the same curriculum is taught the entire country over. Four thirty in the afternoon and standing patiently at the locked school gate for my children to be released along with the other captive collegians I risked mentioning in passing to the female teacher supervising the footpath fraternising that the curriculum did not seem to have changed much since I was last here teaching some twenty years before. In a moment of unexpected but refreshing candour she replied that it was probably more like two hundred years with no change.

There is a mark accorded out of twenty for most pieces of work that the students complete and parents and children alike constantly compare their ‘moyenne’ or average overall mark. In some schools, if a student is not doing well, there are 'soutien' or support classes but in most cases the classroom teacher is not expected to cater for the different ability levels in the classroom and the children are expected to just cope. If a child does poorly on a piece of work it is not uncommon for the teacher to write a straight-to-the-point denigrating comment next to the mark. Imagine the face of your crestfallen offspring faced with the one French word ‘Catastrophe,’ no English explanation needed and scrawled at the bottom of a written assessment task complete with exclamation mark, and you have some idea of teacher feedback practices. The idea that a child might respond to praise or to a warm relationship with the teacher is not the norm.

I went to a parent-teacher interview yesterday afternoon to discuss this exact point. I was on time and my daughter showed me up to her teacher’s classroom. He was chatting to another teacher when we appeared and made no real effort to come and greet us so we waited patiently. When he did come out into the corridor he did not introduce himself, shake hands or engage in conversation. He indicated that the meeting would take place downstairs and headed off with us in tow.

Before sitting down I introduced myself using my first name and put out my hand to be shaken. He mumbled back his full name as he took my hand although I suspect he would have been shocked if I had actually dared use it.  There was no animosity or impoliteness from either of us but he did look surprised at the frankness with which I spoke. He came across as someone sure of himself in his role of teacher but not a self-confident man. It wouldn’t have shocked me to read a poster on the walls listing the rules of the meeting, number one being ‘you are talking to a school teacher and so he has superiority and his methods and practices are not to be questioned.’ Of course I did though, question him, and with the assurance of a perfect, unarguable answer he replied ”But you are in France, Madame.”

As a justification this answer seems to be all that is required, not just in a school context but everywhere. I loosely recall a newspaper article that my husband and I were discussing wherein a Frenchman had become unruly on a flight after having consumed too much alcohol. He refused to accept that he should abide by the rules for all passengers and be served no more alcohol. His argument to prove that rules shouldn’t apply equally to him “But I am French.”

On holidays recently we stopped to visit the castle of Chambord.  Arriving mid-morning we thought that it might be nice to have a coffee before going into the castle. There were several restaurants and cafes to choose from and the owner of one was out the front getting ready for his lunchtime service. Some instinct made me ask if it would be possible to order just coffee before we sat down and made ourselves comfortable. “Of course not, I am far too busy and have got too much to do before midday.” He was speaking French but my English translation would be something like, “I am French, you are not, what were you thinking?” We went next door.

Many a similar story abounds in the travel folklore of arrogant Parisians and unhelpful and disdainful Frenchmen. Why is this so? I live here and have many good friends who are French but until you can prove yourself as someone of interest, which is particularly hard if you are an English speaker, you do risk being brushed off with a “But you are not French” haughtiness.  Smiling does help, as does persistence, developing a thick skin and dropping as early as possible into the conversation that you are from Australia.

Funnily enough I was once the target of ‘being French’ discrimination. My sister, visiting from Australia and speaking English to the sales assistant in Galeries Lafayette, a mildly up-market department store, could not have been better served. She was offered gift-wrapping and a smile. I was up next and spoke French. I was offered neither a smile nor coloured-paper and ribbon. When I asked if my gift could be wrapped I was told that I would have to go and line up at another counter. I would have liked to slap down on the counter my written assessment and mark out of twenty for her. She wouldn’t have made the moyenne.

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