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.” (French education commentator)

Good manners for this shop

Good manners for this shop

The French look upon education rather differently than we do. For me this is epitomised by their exercise books.

As we’ve travelled we’ve had to replace the kids’ exercise books as they fill them up. This has made us realise that what we consider to be a normal, lined, exercise book is in fact especially Australian, or truth be told English and inherited by the Australian system. French exercise books are filled with horizontal and vertical lines. They don’t form squares but sort of long, thin rectangles. We couldn’t work out why simple lined books like we have at home were unavailable. Research suggests that the French are very particular about handwriting and the horizontally and vertically ruled books allow very precise teaching of how a letter should be formed. There’s no individuality in this – there’s only one right way.

That strict approach to handwriting does, it appears, flow through to all aspects of formal French education. (It does not apply to our kids, I have to say, but what we’re doing is not formal French education.) The result is a well-educated but highly regulated population.

The French do come across as quite up-tight. But at the same time there’s a politeness that this creates that is meaningful and real. As you walk down the street in a country town you will be greeted by the locals with a ‘bonjour’. As you enter a shop the shopkeeper will say ‘bonjour monsieur” or “bonjour madame” and it actually sounds like they say it with some warmth; you, of course, are expected to say the same upon entering any shop – not just ‘hello’, or ‘hi’; but ‘hello sir’. Even street-sweepers (who by-the-way still use traditional witches brooms) will say hello.

When doing some research on French etiquette one thing stands out. Most of the internet items are written contrasting American and French etiquette.  So put the following in that context.  In France it is quite acceptable to talk about “Politics, issues of controversy, current events, soccer, arts and anything that results in a good debate.” I like that – it assumes you actually know enough to participate in a debate on those topics. In contrast asking ‘what do you do’ is considered boring. And there’s nothing worse than boring. Gerard who runs the school we are attending mentioned the other evening that when a French woman wants to get a divorce she uses the ultimate insult – “you bore me”.

Over time I imagine that the French politeness-with-warmth can be seen as distant, but in the context of a short stay it is pleasant and friendly. It’s not what you look for from your best friend, but it’s certainly what you hope for from someone you’re buying a loaf of bread from.