Back in April, I wrote ("School's out "- April 11) that for most people in France, life tends to revolve around the school year, with parents, grandparents, resorts and tourist offices throughout the land planning their day-to-day activities according to whether children are in or out of school. The most typical sign of this national obsession with the school year is the "rentrée scolaire", i.e "back to school time", when children and parents return from their long summer holiday to an everyday life organised, once again, around the school day. Well before the date at which all French schools re-open their classrooms, the media are full of talk about "la rentrée", from the amount of a special back-to-school allowance for less well off families to the impressive list of exercise books, textbooks, pencils, compasses, rulers and calculators that schools prescribe according to the grade in which their children will return to school. The back-to-school allowance is paid out this week and anyone in a bookstore, stationer’s or supermarket will witness the unmistakable sight of mothers (usually) and their children seeking out the supplies they need and ticking them off on a long list provided by their school.
To underscore the importance of this landmark event in French national life, the term "rentrée" is also used extensively in connection with other activities that spring back to life after the long summer break: No self-respecting political party or important national politician would miss "la rentrée politique" during which political parties organise their "summer universities" at which their leaders, for the benefit of their activists and a freshly attentive public, state or restate their policy aims and programmes. Trade union leaders vie with each other to be the first to make their "rentrée syndicale" at which the dates of the autumn’s street demonstrations and protest marches will be proclaimed or confirmed. This year, the country has already been put on notice that a national day of action will be held on September 12, undoubtedly to protest about labour market reform on which negotiations have been quietly proceeding during the summer. According to whether the unions are mildly or severely angry about the government’s promised reforms, "la rentrée sociale" (a time-honoured euphemism for autumn street demonstrations and marches) will be either tense (agitée) or calm (apaisée). Unless of course the government manages to drive a wedge between the main unions, in which case it is more likely to be a damp squib. As we have yet to see the full details of labour market reform, it’s difficult to predict the flavour of the coming "rentrée sociale", but there is little doubt that it will take place in one form or another.
In a totally different area, "la rentrée littéraire" is the best time of year for established writers to bring out that long-awaited new novel or for less well-known ones to hope for a breakthrough. All this frenetic publishing activity is of course intended to stimulate interest in the prestigious literary prizes (Prix Goncourt et al.) that are awarded later in the autumn.
As talk of "la rentrée" invades the media and its reality takes over everyday life, it is perhaps worth remembering that its all-pervasive nature, from Strasburg to Brest and from Marseille to Calais, is surely no accident of history, but on the contrary, one of the many small everyday signs and symbols of the drive for national unity that is one of the country’s most enduring characteristics. In an interview on "The identity of France" with "Le Monde" shortly before his death in 1985, the historian Fernand Braudel referred to the concept, coined during the Revolution, of the "Republic (being) one and indivisible" and concluded: "One of the components of France’s identity is this need for concentration and centralisation, against which it is dangerous to act."*
This blog is glad to make its "rentrée" and looks forward to the many and varied events on which to comment in the coming (school) year!
* Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.