I've got the back-to-school blues


September is here again, the cruellest month for all parents of school-age children in France.

September is here again, the cruellest month for all parents of school-age children in France. After a hard-earned holiday, watching the rain-clouds circling over Normandy like stacked aircraft, you come straight back to a school examination, set by sadistic teachers.

This is an examination designed to test the ingenuity and patience, not of the children, but of the parents. The exam paper takes the form of an extensive, abstruse list of fournitures scolaires (school equipment) that the child - to avoid teacherly rage - must possess on the first day of school.

In theory, education is free in France. In practice, primary schools provide nothing but bare walls, desks and a teacher. The parents must supply everything else: pens and pencils, of course; gym clothes, naturally; but also the textbooks, the exercise books (of precisely stated dimensions and characteristics), the plastic exercise-book covers (in specified colours), the ink, the paper, the sticky tape, the rolls of wire, the paper plates, the shoe-boxes, the scissors, the paint brushes, the paint, the painting paper, the tracing paper, the paper hankies and the glue. Lots of glue. French teachers are addicted to glue.

My 10-year-old daughter Clare needed 48 items to start the final year of primary school in Paris last week, including three different kinds of loose-leaf paper, 18 exercise books of four different specifications, and five plastic exercise-book covers (blue, red, yellow, green and transparent).

Grace, aged six, had a marginally shorter list of much greater complexity, including pink and orange exercise-book covers (extremely rare, now stocked only by the most specialised dealers), and a pencil-case with two pockets, "both capable of holding a 20cm plastic ruler".

Every year, there is a fuss in the French press about the length and cost of the school lists. Every year, parents associations protest and suggest that it would be much cheaper, and simpler, for schools - even school districts - to buy all this stuff in bulk. Nothing changes, except that every year, the lists grow longer and more fiendish.

I have a notion (maybe not entirely fanciful) that the teachers in each school convene a coven-like meeting at the end of each year to draw up the list of fournitures scolaires for the next. At this meeting, the teachers put on their pointed hats and then scan stationers' catalogues, several years out of date, to identify the most outlandish items.

First teacher: "We should ask for two exercise books for practical work in big format..." Second teacher: "Hee, hee, hee, yes, but with the bigger squares and with 96 pages, no more, no less..." Third teacher: "Ho, ho, ho, yes, and we should specify that the size must be 24cm by 32cm..." Fourth teacher: "Yes, yes [wiping tears from eyes] but only, in the non-spiral version..."

My daughters' school offers a service in which they supply you (for a large fee) with all the equipment required in a cardboard box. We have been down this cowardly route in recent years, but found that the equipment in the box does not entirely match the list. We have ended up, at the last minute, searching Paris for the last " cahier de travaux pratiques, grand format, grands carreaux, 96 pages, sans spirale, 24 x 32".

This year, therefore, we devoted the last Friday of our holidays to a trip to a hypermarket near Caen in Normandy, with a floor-space three times the size of the Vatican. This shop claims to have the cheapest and most comprehensive range of fournitures scolaires in the nation.

After three hours of searching the football-pitch-length aisles, and fighting off other equally desperate mamans and papas, we emerged with a trolley full of gear (cost €268.77). However, we did not have the six exercise books with alternate blank and ruled pages, in small format, non-spiral; we did not have the pink and orange exercise-book covers; and we could not find Grace's pencil-case with two separate pockets over 20cm long.

It took trips to three other shops to locate the exercise books and plastic covers. Finally, I located what appears to be the last double-barrel pencil-case in France. It said "Harry Potter" on the side, and carried a picture of Hedwig, Harry's owl.

In triumph, I presented it to Grace. "No good," she said. "It's a boy one. Only boys in France have Harry Potter pencil-cases."

Has anyone out there got a twin- bore pencil-case? Must be 20cm in length and pink.

Tête-à-tête with Top Gun

Little information has leaked out from the most extraordinary meeting of political minds of the French rentrée. The other day, the finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to be the Next Big Thing in French politics, met someone even more famous than he is: the actor Tom Cruise.

What on earth did Top Gun have to say to Sarko? According to the minister's staff, they met at Cruise's request and discussed world politics. Nothing, then, to do with the fact that Mr Cruise is a supporter of the Church of Scientology, which is classed as a sect in France and misses out on the fat tax benefits granted to religions?

Not even mentioned, Sarkozy's people said.

What's in a name?

Most schools in France are named after famous dead people: politicians, war heroes, scientists, writers, artists, actors or pop singers. The newspaper Le Monde has drawn up a list of the most commonly chosen names. The Resistance hero Jean Moulin scores well; so do the writers Albert Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Only two foreigners are high in the charts: Leonardo da Vinci and Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer/songwriter. Half of French schoolchildren, one presumes, are girls. School names are almost always those of men. Marie Curie is the only common exception. Why no Lycée Edith Piaf?

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