While we were all sipping pink wine this weekend, savoring barbequed tri-tip, taking a snooze in the hammock and generally shunning all forms of labor, the French were up to something quite different. Yesterday, the 5th of September, was a day of mass exodus in the hexagone (as the French refer to their geometrically-shaped country). Millions of impeccably groomed, sun-tanned French kids donning petit backpacks and perfectly shined shoes filed into the streets for their first day back to school. That’s right—millions. Back-to-school in the States is a season; it happens over several weeks’ time. In France, the vast majority of students head back to school on the same day, called la rentrée: the return, or the re-entry.
La rentrée is a huge ordeal, in part because of how idle the month of August is in France. Productivity sinks to an annual low; businesses close their doors—even the government goes on vacation. If you’ve worked with French companies, you can relate to vast periods of silence in the late summer weeks. La Rentrée is the brutal rupture after this long period of total relaxation and sunshine. It’s the guillotine that speedily severs a string of leisurely weeks reminiscent of ice-cream cones and seashores.
In addition to students of all ages, novelists, journalists and politicians all return to their desk, airspace and podium for la rentrée, often with more than just a bronzed allure—this big day is the fall equivalent of the springtide. Public figures and media use “the return” as an occasion for fall cleaning: they revamp, re-sculpt, redefine their image, their style, their ideologies.
It’s no wonder that there’s huge media buzz around this tradition in France. With everyone from the president to the kindergarteners back in the saddle and riding full speed ahead in synchrony, interesting things tend to occur. This is an opportune week for la grève (strikes) in France, since any disruption to the mass exodus back to school and back to work confers massive persuasive power to strikers. From milk producers to public transportation conductors, garbage collectors to students, strikes are common in this period, adding a degree of chaos to the national scene.
This year’s rentrée has been characterized by a few trends and debates:
- The student-teacher ratios are reaching unprecedented highs. Nearly 5,000 fewer teachers and 80,000 more students this year are anticipated. Parents, students and teachers are outraged at how budget cuts, lack of proper training and weak recruitment measures, among other factors, will make for huge average class sizes this year.
- The cost of school supplies climbed by anywhere between 6% and 18% this year. In France, all parents basically receive the same recommended school supply list. Because of increases in the cost of paper and other materials, the average shopping cart of school goods this year is at the limit of affordable for several French families.
- There’s typically debates in the media just before la rentrée around such topics as whether enough aid is provided to underprivileged families for school supplies. This year’s debate has centered on whether increased college costs could benefit universities and France’s educational system as a whole. If instead of $250 a year, a public university cost $1,000, would less students fail? Would college degrees have more perceived value?
As you can see, la rentrée is a time for reflection, a time for newness, for a fresh exchange of ideas and new beginnings; for healthy banter, amended goals and an expensive education. And for pink wine.