Summer’s end

In France,September heralds a return to humdrum routine.

Written by Radha Kapoor Sharma | Published:September 21, 2013 2:03 am

In France,September heralds a return to humdrum routine.

For a foreigner living in France,la rentrée is a concept that is quintessentially French. Originally meaning back-to-school time or the beginning of a new school year,it now marks a return in September to the humdrum routine of not only studying but working,politicking or being culturally active after a comatose August spent tanning on the beach. In August,France grinds to a halt. Schools are closed,many businesses and restaurants shut,the government is on autopilot and with a resigned shrug,Parisians surrender their city to a determined onslaught of tourists while they go away on vacation.

In September,they reclaim it and the normal way of life is restored. Or almost. The French return to find prices slightly higher,their regular TV newsreader replaced,their favourite programme off the air. There’s nothing like the rentrée with its summer-induced amnesia to introduce change. It is also the start of the new cultural season with town halls and museums announcing the calendar of artistic and literary events. The literary rentrée sees the publication of hundreds of novels based on the assumption that readers are rearing to plunge into serious soul-searching literature after a brain-dead August gorging on pulp fiction.

In politics (la rentrée politique),it’s back to business as usual,the summer truce is over,the gloves are off and the intra- and inter-party slanging resumes. This year,the main opposition party,the UMP,is readying for a controversial post- mortem of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential record,amid sparring by the two leading contenders for the party’s 2017 presidential nomination. The Socialist government is doing a dexterous foxtrot around taxes,having recently been warned by Olli Rehn,the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs,that tax levels in France had reached a “critical threshold”. Qualifying the new green tax that is on the anvil as a “climate energy contribution”,the government is hoping that a tax by another name may not sting as much. But it’s neither disguised taxes nor the threat of impending strikes by transportation unions that is causing the most hoopla. It is the return to school (the rentrée scolaire). Francois Hollande’s government has decided to extend the four-day week for primary school students to a four-and-a-half day week.

Since the 19th century,French primary schools have been closed on Wednesdays,a practice started to appease the Roman Catholic Church so that children could learn catechism on their day off. To compensate for the short week and nearly four months of vacation a year,three- to 10-year olds have long school days that typically start at 8.30 am and finish at 4 pm.

One of President Hollande’s electoral promises was to overhaul the French educational system and restore it to its pre-Sarkozy glory. France,with the shortest school year but the longest school day,is lagging behind many of its OECD counterparts in terms of academic achievements of primary school pupils. This lacklustre performance has been attributed to flagging energy levels and dwindling attention spans caused by the long school day. The obvious solution was to shorten it.

Hollande’s government decided to start the reform process with a supposedly consensual measure to reduce the school day by 45 minutes. But a host of problems emerged. Children couldn’t go home early unless there was someone to look after them,so parents protested. The government therefore promised extracurricular activities during this last period. Leisure being the purview of municipalities,the onus of paying for these falls on them,so municipalities protested. Then,to complete the syllabus,half a day of classes had to be tacked on,either on Wednesday morning or Saturday morning. Extra hours for teachers,so the trade unions protested. School on Saturday,the holy Shabbat,so orthodox Jews protested. School on Wednesday,the day reserved for private dance,karate,tennis,riding,music,art lessons,so all the commercial interest groups linked to these activities protested. The solution could be to shorten the summer break,suggested the education minister. What a crazy idea,so everyone protested. The only unanimity was in defence of the hallowed summer vacations. However,to its credit,the government did not budge but has offered the possibility of postponement of the reform till September 2014 if dispensation is sought,and financial aid to those municipalities that implement the reform in 2013 itself.

Now,the rentrée has begun. Amid much criticism,4,000 municipalities have taken the plunge. The others have resisted the change,for this year at least. This reform,for all the controversy it has generated,is a step in the right direction. The most important part,enlivening the national curriculum and improving the quality of teaching,still lies ahead. But that’s for another rentrée.

Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based freelance interpreter and writer

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