Liberté, égalité, fraternité, dictée...

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To be dictated to by one's children is the fate of most parents. The other night, I asked my 14-year-old son Charles to read out two moderately complicated texts in French. I scribbled down the words as accurately as I could, ransacking my fading memories of school lessons in the 1960s to unmask the subjunctive verbs and satisfy myself that all adjectives and participles were on speaking terms with plural and/or feminine nouns.

One of the many joys, or terrors, of French is that words can be spelled in different ways according to how they are employed or where they fall in the sentence. The words continue, treacherously, to sound much the same.

When I handed in my exam papers, I was quietly smug. Not for long. Charles marked my work with the sadistic eye and vicious turn of phrase of his professeur de français. I had committed, he said, several "barbarismes" and many "horreurs".

In the first dictation, I scored 10 out of 20; in the second, 11 out of 20. In other words, I barely reached the pass mark for the baccalauréat, the French equivalent of A-levels. I consoled myself with the knowledge that French children often get minus scores.

The dictée, or dictation, has long been one of the pillars of the French way of education. A teacher reading out a text for students to write down is still the model of what some in France - including the education minister, François Fillon - believe that education should be. Even at university level, first degree courses frequently consist of lecturers reading out lists of theories and facts. Fillon said recently that it was time for the madly innovative French education system to go back to basics. In a circular to school districts, he said that there should be more dictées, especially for those in their early teens.

This seemed a bit like telling a heroin addict to take more drugs. From the age of five to the age of 16, French schoolchildren are given one or two dictations a week. My wife Margaret recently signed up for an advanced French course at the Sorbonne. The centrepiece of the week's work for her class of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Estonian, Ukrainian, and a few Anglophone students, is the dictation. The Japanese and Chinese students are brilliant at the dictations but cannot string two words of verbal French together. Margaret speaks French pretty well. Her dictée scores err on the low side of 10.

The sheer complexity of French grammar and variable spelling means that the dictée occupies a much greater place in the national consciousness than the spelling test in America or Britain. Recently, the BBC successfully launched a spelling programme. Next month in France, the TV channel France 2 will transmit the 19th final of the national dictée championships, the "Dicos d'Or". The programme is one of the most popular of the TV year. Millions will tune in once again to try to write down correctly "zinnias nonpareils à l'abri des moucharabiehs" (peerless zinnias sheltered by shutters).

So, why is the education minister complaining? Until 30 years ago, dictation was a daily exercise in French schools. Since then, there has been a cautious trend towards requiring children to write creatively, as well as copying down what teacher says. Only a cautious trend, however. The national curriculum still dictates that there should be plenty of dictées and abstract lessons in the theory of sentence construction.

Employers, as they do in Britain, complain that children are leaving school unable to write clearly. Some teachers believe that more creative writing is the way forward. Fillon and the traditionalists want to put the clock back. It is a typically French argument but also a universal one. Which is more important? Grammatical accuracy or creativity and imagination? Both, surely. The first should serve the second; the second is not possible without knowledge of the first.

My youngest child Grace, aged seven, was recently given a copy of a reproduction of the original Babar the Elephant book from the 1930s, with the French text printed in ornate handwriting. She loved the book but, on a second reading, complained, with a shocked expression, that it was "full of grammatical errors". Sigh.

Hedging our festive bets

For the past seven Christmases, I have bought the family tree from the celebrated flower market on the Place des Ternes near the Arc de Triomphe. Each year, I knew that I was being ripped off. One winter, in a moment of madness, I spent €240 on a tall, perfectly formed tree that was guaranteed to hold its needles. By the 12th day of Christmas, we had spent €1 for every remaining needle

Driving along in Normandy the other day, I saw a sign advertising sapins (fir trees). A farmer stood in a roadside plantation carrying a chain saw. Choose your own tree, he said. There was a choice between firs that looked like former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, tall and cadaverous, and those that looked like the current prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as broad as they were tall, with no obvious point. I chose a "Raffarin", two metres high and two metres across. How much would this tree be, I asked, nervously. "Dix euros," the farmer said.

We have a decorated hedge rather than a tree this year, but, at €10, it is a very fine hedge.

Sweat nothings

The perpetual debate about the pollution of France by approximate English was joined the other day by an Englishman who wrote a letter to the newspaper Le Figaro. John Townshend from Haute-Savoie said that he had tried to buy a pair of pyjamas in a French supermarket. The only pair in his size carried the slogan in "English": "You cannot imagine more sweat and confortable place."