Tag Archives: School in Paris

University in France

Hello world! I’m sorry I disappeared for a while. I went back to the states for the holidays, and when I came back to France it was time to gear up for exams. I’ve just emerged from the madness and I’m back to my adventures around Paris and posting about them. It’s been very (very very) cold in the last couple of weeks, and we’ve even had some light snow. But in spite of the awful weather, I have soldiered on and done some sightseeing (mostly indoors). I should have lots of new material up here in the coming weeks, so enjoy.

Now that I’ve got a full semester under my belt, I wanted to do a post about school. First, some background. I am a law student. In the US, this means that I already graduated from a 4 year university with a bachelor’s degree and I’ve now almost completed my 3 year legal education. In France, however, it’s completely different.

French students take the Baccalaureate exam when they’re 17. Anyone who passes the “Bac” has the legal right to a university education. Practically all of the universities in France are public (There are a handful of private universities, but until recently they were considered to be of a much lower quality. Apparently that’s starting to change.). So the state provides an education to anyone who has passed the bac. Students who want to enter the grandes-écoles (the most famous and competitive schools) have to take another exam. Once students are admitted into a university, they start their legal education right away. They spend their first 3 years of university doing their License in law. After they’ve finished the License they spend one year doing the Master 1. That’s what I’m doing right now, my Master 1. There are many many students in the program, and they are all competing to get into a Master 2 program, which is the next year-long program. More on that later. After the Master 2, students can apply for a doctorate-level degree, which I believe takes 3 years. Anyone who has at least a Master 1 can become a lawyer (either a juriste or an avocat, a distinction we don’t have in the states).

So the program I am in right now is the Master 1. It’s a 2 semester program, and in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve gone back to college. The classes are huge. There are hundreds of people in each class, and they’re held in big amphitheaters where the professors sit at a desk on the stage and talk at the students for an hour and a half twice a week. Because France uses a civil law (codified) system, there isn’t much explanation or analysis or interpretation or discussion. They just tell us what the law is and we take notes (the French students type practically every word the professor says in paragraph form; they think that the way I take notes is crazy). The professors give their lectures in outline form (they will literally say “Second part, chapter 1, paragraph 1” and the title of that paragraph before launching into the lecture). For the exam, we memorize everything in our notes, and we regurgitate all of that information for the test. That’s it. There is  no analysis because none is needed. Whatever is in the code is the law. That’s all they need to know. There is no binding case law (although case law is provided as an example and you get bonus points if you can memorize some cases the professor mentions). Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) judgments are usually about three paragraphs long. Sometimes less. Overall, it’s a much simpler system to learn, so studying it is less, well, less involved than studying US law. You just memorize laws from the code. You must have a good memory though; there’s a lot more information to memorize than in the US.

There’s also something called travaux dirigés (“TD”) which is exactly like those weekly section meetings in undergrad with a TA who is a doctorate student. They assign extra reading related to the lecture topics and give exams and things. I’m not doing TD because I’m very fortunate and got an exception because of other academic activities. My friends all have to take TD and it stresses them out.

One thing that I find amusing is the students who take handwritten notes. I would say that about 1/3 of the students take their notes by hand, and it’s crazy to watch. First, all French students have the same handwriting because they worked so hard on it in school. At first, it was hard for me to read because it’s all in cursive and it’s slightly different from how most people in the US write, but once you get used to it you can read almost anyone’s writing, because as I said they all write the same. They use booklets of crazy lined paper called Seyès Ruling paper that teaches children how to make even, proportionate letters when they’re learning how to write. The paper looks like graph paper, except there are many more horizontal lines and the vertical lines are not evenly spaced. The students are taught as children where on this “grid” each letter starts, stops, and connects, so that they write uniformly. They still all use it here at the university, and it comes in folded feuilles, so the students start with a stack of them and fill them up over the course of a lecture. Then they put them in a binder and keep adding to it all semester with new booklets of notes.

They almost all use fountain pens (which are very common here and can be found in any price range from super cheap to super expensive and everything in between). And they use different colored pens to make certain parts of the notes stand out. It’s impressive, because at the same time they’ll all put down their main pen, pick up the colored pen, write whatever they needed to write in the new colored ink, then put down the colored pen and pick back up the main pen to continue writing in one smooth motion. It all happens very quickly. Even more impressive is when they highlight. They usually have 2 different colored highlighters, and whenever they highlight anything they use a small ruler so that the line is straight. When this happens, they go through the whole process I just mentioned but add the ruler into it as well. It’s a well-choreographed process so that they don’t miss anything the professor says. I find it amusing, but they are also amused by the way I take notes, so we’re even.

Anyway, the academic environment means that the Master 1 is a lot like college in the states. Half the students never go to class. If you can buy notes (or get them from a friend), you don’t need to go, so they don’t bother. The students that do go are divided into two groups: the workers and the slackers. In the front of the classroom sit the students who are competing hard to get into a Master 2 program. They diligently type every word the professor says and they never miss a class. They work very hard all week every week. They take their studies very seriously and they read treatises about the subjects they’re studying. The slackers mystify me. They come to class, but they sit in the back and talk LOUDLY to their friends and graffiti on the desks with white out pens and generally just hang out. I do not understand why they come to class at all. I mean, if you’re not going to get anything out if it, you might as well do something fun instead and just skip it. It’s not like you get credit for being there. Once, my friend said that a girl was having a full-volume conversation on her cell phone in the middle of class….and the phone was on speaker. Crazy. They should just ditch.

The semester continues on like that for weeks and weeks. Lectures, note-taking, and TD if you have it. Then we get a week off to study for exams. Exams are given either written or orally. There is a minimum required amount of each form of exam that each student has to take, so you can’t take them all written or all oral. At first, I was terrified about the prospect of oral exams since they’re in French. They’re not actually so bad. The professor gives you a topic and you tell them everything you know about that topic. Then they thank you and you leave. The whole thing is done in 10 minutes. The written tests are much shorter than my law school exams in the states: only 2 hours. They are all hand-written and during most of them you’re allowed to use the code, so students are flipping furiously through their copies of the code.

That’s been my experience so far. Not very academically fulfilling, but fortunately I have friends in the Master 2, which is what I’ll be taking next year. Their very positive experiences in the Master 2 give me hope. The Master 2 is very selective, so there are only about 20 students in each program. This means that the classes are very small and much more student-driven. The students read articles by legal scholars and then the scholars will come and have a discussion with the students. They go on field trips to conferences. The students give presentations. They all know each other and all of the professors well. It sounds great.

So that’s school. At least, that’s my experience so far. I’ll be back to posting about cool things around Paris later this week. It’s good to be back!

Bibliothèque Centre Pompidou: bibliothèque publique d’information

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting a whole lot lately. This isn’t because I haven’t been meaning to, but most of my writing has been focused on my NaNoWriMo novel this month. I’ll get back on the wagon with my blog this week. The novel writing is going well. I am behind in my word count at the moment, but it’s not irreparable. And what’s more important: it’s fun.

Speaking of writing in Paris (or doing any other type of work for that matter), I needed to find a good quiet place with internet access where I could write. And that place needed to be somewhere other than my apartment. Those who know me well know that I cannot get work done at home. I will rearrange furniture, reorganize my closet, clean everything, and spend hours in the kitchen cooking or baking up a storm. But I will not work. There are too many distractions for me at home.

So I needed a place to work that was away from home. I also didn’t want to go to school because it’s far away and depressing. This left me with many choices in Paris. There are, of course, innumerable cafés with internet access. In France, if you order a coffee or tea (or hot chocolate, my personal drink of choice) you can sit for as long as you like at a café and work. And if you get hungry, there are many delicious selections that won’t break the bank if you’re not in a touristy or super fancy place. I had great success at the Fée Verte a few weeks ago. They served a delicious chicken and rice and bread dinner for €9,90 and the internet was great. There was plenty of space and the environment was mellow. Not too bad.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

But sometimes I need a quiet place. And while a cup of hot chocolate isn’t very expensive, I always love free places. Paris has free wifi at many parks and other public places, but now that it’s winter it’s a bit cold to sit outside and write. So I began to search for a library.

There are many libraries in Paris. They have an American library, and the Sorbonne has allegedly one of the best libraries around that any master’s student can use if you bring your credentials. But sometimes you don’t want to deal with the French bureaucracy. You just want a clean quiet free place to work. Right now.

Enter the library in the Centre Georges Pompidou. The Centre Pompidou is a huge modern building in the Marais, a very cool right bank neighborhood. It houses a very popular museum (I’m waiting for a first Sunday of the month to go, when it’s free. Watch for upcoming posts about it.). The building is multi-colored with space-age looking escalators going up the outside and pipes all over it. You can’t miss it. Much of the building houses the museum collections, but on the backside of it is a fantastic public library. The library is free and open to all, and it was founded on the idea of free access to information for all. You enter, and the person checks your bag to make sure you don’t have any prohibited items (at least I’m assuming that’s what he was looking for), and you enter. That’s it.

The library is very large, new, and clean. There are 3 floors, and each floor contains several different subjects. They have practical information for everyday life (health, finding an apartment, Parisian life, etc.), they have an area for the press of the world with newspapers from all over and little TV stations with headphones that play the news from many countries around the world. Anyone can walk up, have a seat, put on the headphones, and watch the news from whatever country is being shown. They have computers with free internet access (although there is usually a line for them). They have a cinema area and a music area with CDs and listening stations and even a couple of keyboards. And of course, there are lots and lots of books on all the traditional subjects and desks. There is also free wifi for those who have laptops. It is a wonderful place to work. And it’s open until 10pm almost everyday. The library has an excellent website where you can take a virtual tour of the facility.

I will warn you, however, that this library is not a very well kept secret. On a Saturday afternoon you will probably be able to find a seat by yourself, but if you’re searching for two seats together among the thousands and thousands of seats, you may not be so lucky. There are many tables on each floor, and many have outlets for laptop plugs. But the French come to this library in droves to work. It’s wonderful that it’s so well utilized, but sometimes it’s frustrating to find a place to sit. I think weekends are the worst. Last Saturday I tried to go, but there was a huge line out front just to get into the library. I had never seen that before, so I gave up right away. On quieter days though, it’s perfect.

This is one of the most fantastic public libraries I have ever used. If you’re in Paris and you need to get some work done, I highly recommend it.

New words: par ailleurs (otherwise/moreover), tellement (so, so much, such), le for (the forum), une entrave (a barrier/obstacle), en revanche (in contrast/on the other hand), subis (suffered/sustained/experienced), un timbre (a stamp), soutenir (support), selon (according to), mettre en oeuvre (implement), mettre en cause (challenge), générer (to generate)


What a crazy week!!! I found an apartment (hooray!), moved into said apartment, and started classes. Whew!

So far, classes in France are a lot like my undergraduate classes were. This is because, for them, law school is an undergraduate major. So it’s a huge lecture hall where the professors talk at the students for an hour and half and the students transcribe every word the professors say in paragraph form. Needless to say, I am getting notes from my new-found French friends. Their notes are flawless transcriptions of the class! It’s amazing! My notes are sparse. Just listening, I can understand 50-80% of what the professors are saying (except for one professor, who speaks very quickly and has a naturally soft voice). But when I try to take notes and I start writing, things go south quickly. My French is not good enough to listen and write at the same time. I write, then I start to listen again, and I’m completely lost for a minute because I’ve missed some critical piece of information while I was writing. So I try to take some notes, but mostly I try to listen and rely on my extremely kind French classmates for notes.

Overall, the week was spent organizing the apartment (have I mentioned that I have the greatest apartment in all of Paris? it’s perfect.), going to classes, and fighting with the administration to get properly registered. But on Wednesday, I had some retail fun.

Paris is the fashion capital of the world. However, for most of us mere earthlings (especially those of us on student-sized budgets), the clothes are EXPENSIVE!!!!! The whole city is one big shopping-tease. You look into window after window of the most gorgeous, unique, outrageous, elegant, stylish clothes, and then you look at the little price marker next to them and your heart misses a beat. You don’t even bother converting the euros into dollars, because that would just make it worse.

Other than H&M and Zara, my only Paris fashion experiences had been the sort of lèche-vitrine (“window-licking,” or what we refer to as window-shopping) I’ve just described. But this week I discovered Paris’s dépôt-ventes. They are second-hand luxury fashion stores where you can buy the most exclusive brands at a fraction of the price! Now, sometimes a fraction of the price is still a high number, but in general you can find affordable couture. I was thrilled to find Chercheminippes in the 6th arrondissement. I bought some fantastic new (to me) designer clothes and I didn’t break the bank. It was great.

I promised to increase the multimedia-to-text ration on the blog, so I will take my camera for some outings this weekend. I haven’t forgotten. I’ve just been at home or school most of the week. Neither occasion merited camera-use.

Happy Friday everyone! Bon week-end!