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).
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: