Things about France that surprised me: the fuss about “La rentrée”

In France you start hearing about la rentrée from mid-August onwards and while it’s often translated as merely the start of a new school year in fact its cultural significance goes much deeper. La rentrée simply means the re-entry or the return but its arrival heralds a shift in the winds in France every September, here’s why.

French cities in August are pretty much empty – even this year. Many of the smaller independent shops will be closed and if you’re emailing anyone about a work-related or official matter don’t be surprised to get an auto-reply informing you that they are out of the office until September.

The French parliament is not sitting and there isn’t much in the way of official business being done. This year has been slightly different because of the health crisis, but in his press conference on last Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex thought it worth mentioning that: ”

……like the virus, the French government has not been on holiday.

He might not have been on holiday, but president Emmanuel Macron did spend several weeks at Brégançon, the Riviera property that the French state provides so that presidents can take their summer holidays beside the sea.

It’s because the long August holiday is such an embedded tradition in French life, that the return in September is a big deal.

Here are some of the things that la rentrée means and why it defies an easy translation into English;

Schools restart 

La rentrée scolaire is when schools start their new academic year. This only happens in September, so this year as 1st September on a Tuesday, the schools will restart today, rather than the Monday, which might seem more logical but it’s still in August.

La rentrée

Today some 12 million school pupils will return to classrooms across France though reopening schools will be different this year, especially seeing as teachers and pupils over 11 years old (in secondary and high school) will be masked. There are however other important changes.

  1. The move to cut class sizes for primary school children aged six to seven in disadvantaged parts of French cities and towns will continue in September. Instead of a maximum 24 pupils, there should be 12 or less per teacher. The aim is to correct one of the biggest failings of the French public education system: the gap in achievement between children from poor and wealthier backgrounds.
  2. Before the summer French MPs reached an agreement to ban mobile phones for all three tiers of French education (primary, middle and high school) from September onwards, except if they are used for educational purposes.
  3. September will see the primary school timetable at many schools across the country returning to a four day week.
  4. Pupils in secondary schoolsandhigh schools have to wear masks, both inside the premises and outdoors on the playground, except when “eating,” “exercising,” or engaging in other activities that are “incompatible” with wearing a mask. While it is up to parents to provide their children with masks, the government will provide all schools with stocks to give out to pupils lacking one.
  5. Teachers in all schools will have to wear a mask at all times, even when lecturing.

A side-effect of la rentrée scolaire is the appearance in shops of huge collections of stationery as stressed-out parents head out to buy the dozens of items on the official lists that schools send out, all of which are deemed essential to educational life.

Return to work

Of course key workers continued to work throughout the summer but many offices closed completely for some or all of August. As mentioned above, it’s not at all uncommon to receive out-of-office replies simply telling you that the person will be back in September and will deal with your query then.

Many smaller independent businesses including boulangeries, florists, pharmacies, clothes shops and bars also close for some or all of August as their staff and owners enjoy a break. In the south of France this is typically the last two weeks of August.

Of course, many are still working from home so will be denied the usual pleasure of easing oneself back into the habit of work. Often the first few days after la rentrée is a time for chatting to colleagues, hearing other people’s holiday stories.

However anyone returning to work in a shared indoor workspace will be required to wear a mask at all times in anywhere that is not an individual office. Employees who have their own individual offices will not have to wear a mask when at their desk, but they will have to put one on whenever they leave their office or if someone else enters.

Employees don’t have to pay for their own masks, the cost must be covered by the employer, who is also responsible for ensuring that their employees have access to masks.

Return to parliament 

The French parliament takes a break over the summer and resumes sessions in September and ministers too generally take a few weeks off.

This summer has been slightly different because of the ongoing health crisis, and there have been two meetings of the Defence Committee – one chaired remotely by Macron from his holiday home.

Generally September sees the government preparing to present new legislation or reforms, and the French press generally run lists of what the goverment will be focusing on in la rentrée (this year it’s a fairly short list – they will be mostly concentrating on Covid and the upcoming economic crash, which in fairness is enough to keep anyone busy).

New books are published

There is also a phenomenon known as la rentrée litteraire, which is when hundreds of new books are published in the busiest part of the literary year

This is partly related to people coming back to work, but is also linked to the fact that many of France’s major literary prizes – including the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Renaudot, and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française – are held in October and November. Publishers therefore release books that they believe have a chance at a prize in late August or September in the hope that they will be fresh in the judges’ minds.

Summer activities end

As people head back to work and temperatures begin to cool, many of the summer activities and facilities  – such as they were this summer – close down too, from small town festivals and open-air cinemas to the Paris plages urban beaches that are dismantled in the last weekend of August.

Traffic chaos

With most of France heading home from its holidays at the same time, the final weekend in August is usually the subject of dire warnings about traffic jams.

.. and hunting season

This is the month the French hunting season kicks off, so in rural areas watch out for people with guns!

23 thoughts on “Things about France that surprised me: the fuss about “La rentrée”

  1. So true, after the large exceptional break in the summer, the return to normal time is experienced as the end of freedom. There is an inversion of values with regard to normality.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Wow. I would like an August like that. I think we kind of do that with Christmas andNew Years. I am hoping that kids all over the world do okay with the going back in person. Teachers too.

    Liked by 3 people

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  4. School starts for my grandkids next week. It will be interesting as we are already started to go up in our virus numbers. I enjoyed reading what it is like where you live. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I think that what adds to this ‘shutdown’ during summer is the fact that we have a lot of holidays. And I’m not talking about the bank holidays. I’m talking about paid leave. When you sign off for 1 month for paid leave, I can tell you, you don’t want to go back to the Metro, Boulot, Dodo… Well we are back to confinement now… But kids still going to school this time! No 5 month break from school this time round (lol). Thank goodness!

    Liked by 1 person

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