Le baccalauréat

It’s time for le baccalauréat (luh back-a-lor-ay-a) in France, or le bac, as it’s colloquially known. Napoléon I introduced the exam in 1806. Today, it’s basically de rigueur for those wanting to attend French universities. It’s not required for high school (lycée) graduation, nor is it obligatory; about 62% of all students sit for the exam, with a pass rate in excess of 80% these days. It used to be far more stringent. My teacher colleagues in France have told me that they are under pressure to give passing grades (10/20 or greater) to the exams they mark, even though some of what they see is simply awful. They have their revenge with Les perles du bac, a collection of answers that are so bad they’re funny, such as “Clovis mourut à la fin de sa vie” (Clovis died at the end of his life).

The diploma given to all baccalauréat graduate...

The diploma given to all baccalauréat graduates. The diploma is issued by the recteur d’académie by delegation from the Minister of National Education. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, le bac is a rite of passage, accompanied by enormous stress and handwringing. The philosophy exam is always the first. Every year, the French news features the questions on this year’s exam and interviews famous philosophers and students about the best answers. Several weeks later, le bac results are published outside of the school with the possibility of honors: mention assez bien (honors); mention bien (high honors); or mention très bien (highest honors). Rarely, markers can even award félicitations du jury (jury’s congratulations). These honors are a big deal. When I did a home-stay, my mère d’accueil told me about her son’s mention bien from about 40 years earlier. Families gather outside the school and there is either popping of champagne corks or tears and wailing. EVERYONE knows your results. To not succeed is a major set-back. Unlike the American SAT exams that are offered almost every month, le bac happens just once a year in June.

There is more than one type of bac: général, technologique (technology), and professionnel (skilled trades). It’s really the général that is the subject of all the attention. It is further subdivided into the S (scientifique), ES (sciences économiques et socials), and L (littéraire). The most prestigious schools demand the S. Here’s what the S exam encompasses: French; math; physics; chemistry; biology, engineering, or ecology; history and geography; two additional languages (your choice from an array of over 60 possibilities!); philosophy; and physical education. This latter category is assessed throughout the year, but the rest require lengthy essay-style examinations lasting two to four hours each. Even le bac littéraire requires math and biology, so there’s no easy way out for math/science phobics like me. Intimidating, isn’t it!

French movies about school life:

Entre les murs (The Class)


Skirt Day


Être et avoir

About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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16 Responses to Le baccalauréat

  1. andreea says:

    i’m from romania and we also have le bac, proof of our francophony. is true that le bac is a rite of passage and we all remember the exams, even years later. we all have funny stories about it, mostly because you get so stressed and you explode at some moment. i remember i started laughing at loud in the midle of my biology exam and i could not stop. what hapened was that i didn’t study all the materials and all i could remember well was about the cell which i always study because it was at the begining of the book.there i was all nevous,t hinking about the possible questions and essay and then i see that the essay recuired was about the cell. Hallelujah starting singing in my mind and i laughed. one of the teachers escorted me to the bathroom.
    i love your blog and is always nice to begin my day with one your posts. and i can refresh my french too(i did 11 years of french at school)

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  8. Stephanie says:

    This was very interesting and insightful. I needed some sources for a report, but ended up with a mouth full of awe. SATs really are nothing by comparison. I really appreciate that it’s in English, thank you. Thanks for the info too, well written and impressive.

  9. Anonymous says:

    What a relief for me! I just took an exam where they asked about the French rite of passage into adulthood. I was completely stumped, even though I had lived in Paris for 10 years! Tried to remember what all kids worried about as they reached adulthood. Eureka, I got it…the darn bac! That was the only rite I came to mind 🙂

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  11. Emma says:

    Very interesting article! As a french CPGE student, I have been through the pressure of the bac and remember how happy I was when I got the results (highest honors, 17/20). Yet, I don’t believe “the S” is still seen as the most prestigious one. It is only obligatory if one wants to continue in a scientific field. I chose ES because it was the most interesting one for me. We can’t even see the difference years after. Thank you for the article, I will share it! 🙂

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