John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

'I was humiliated the last time I did a school project'

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My spare time and our flat have been laid waste by barbarian invasions.

First the Vikings colonised the kitchen table. Then Joan of Arc arrived to boot the wicked English out of France.

It is school project time.

The last time I became involved, I was deeply humiliated. My son and I built a Roman baths out of cereals packets and cotton buds. We painted it Barbie pink because someone assured us that was the colour of the buildings in Pompeii. The finished structure resembled an adobe supermarket in New Mexico but was, otherwise, rather good in a Blue Peter kind of way.

There is no Blue Peter tradition in France. My son's literal-minded Latin teacher declared the building "sui generis" (unusual) and "non grata" (useless). We scored eight out of 20. My son's friends threw the model out of the school window.

Just before Christmas, my older daughter, aged 12, was commissioned, with two friends, to build a Viking ship. By Odin and Thor, this time we would show them.

My daughter and her friends read the runes of the internet and produced an avalanche of information on "drakkars" and "long ships".

This will take just a couple of days, I said, gathering supplies of balsa wood, glue, craft-knives, paint, string and card. Four weeks later, the drakkar was finished. There was severe collateral damage to the kitchen table, a clown-suit and an electric kettle.

The ship had a beautiful dragon's head and a spiral tail. It had a sail cut from the stripes of my son's old clown costume. It had a fat, plastic toy viking at a tiller made from an ice-lolly stick.

The ship was almost complete when we visited a touring Danish exhibition of Viking artifacts (at the Bayeux Tapestry museum in Normandy until 2 May). There were several wonderful models in the exhibition, based on archaeological discoveries of Viking ships. Rather crude original designs, I thought. Nothing like as elaborate and sophisticated as ours. So much for the Vikings as great boat builders.

In the meantime, my younger daughter, aged nine, placed herself in charge of a five-child project to present the story of Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years' War. You might think that this would be an awkward subject for an Anglo-Irish child in a mainly French class. Grace explained that the English were "mean" 700 years ago but were "normal" today.

We helped her to prepare an information panel about Jeanne d'Arc and a script for five voices, presenting the war from a scrupulously French point of view. Then, at the last moment, a stand-in history teacher cancelled the Hundred Years' War on the grounds that it would "take too long".

The Viking ship, meanwhile, made two voyages to school. On the first, my daughter sat down on it in the back of the car and broke off its dragon's head.

After the second voyage, the ship was received as a great marvel. It has been placed in the school library. Its picture has been taken for the school magazine.

Clare and her friends received 19 out of 20 for the drakkar and their accompanying lecture on Viking ships. I thought that was rather a begrudging reward for all their work. Then I was reminded of the scoring system in French schools above the primary level.

The best mark available to pupils is 18 out of 20. Only teachers can score 19 out of 20.

Twenty out of twenty is reserved for God.

* The French middle class is depressing. Who says so? Nicolas Sarkozy, the champion of the French middle classes, says so.

"We have decided to translate in English and explain to the rest of the world why Nicolas Sarkozy is important for the future of France," says www.oui-sarkozy.com, an independent site supporting the centre-right presidential candidate.

"Economically, Germany is taking-off, France is not doing so good. The middle class is depressing and the suburbs are in crisis."

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