The essential language you need to understand the French school system

If you have kids in French schools you'll need this essential language list to help you understand how the French school system works.

The essential language you need to understand the French school system
Photo: AFP
The French school system can seem complicated: the words associated with it sound technical and can be daunting to anyone who isn’t French
In France, children start school by going to the école maternelle when they are 3 (and it will become compulsory from the aged of 3 in September). This is like a preschool and it lasts for three years. Children in maternelle are taught about letters and sounds and may do a little reading. The official school curriculum doesn't start until primary school which kids go to after the maternelle when they are 6. Primary school is called école élémentaire or école primaire and is usually just referred to as 'école'
After five years, children move on to secondary school when they are 10 or 11 years old. Secondary education is split into two: the first part is called the collège and lasts for four years. At the end of collège, all pupils must sit an exam called the Brevet. Most school children then move on to the lycée (although it is not compulsory) for three years to prepare for the French Baccalauréat exam, which they sit at the end of the lycée.
Here are the words you need to know if you have a kid in the maternelle:
There are three classes in maternelle. The first year is called 'petite section', the second 'moyenne section' and the third 'grande section'. The teacher is called the maîtresse (for a woman) or maître (for a man). Days in maternelle are busy. Children sing nursery rhymes (comptine), learn about letters and sounds and also have quiet time (temps calme). In the first year, children are allowed to take their teddys (doudou) to school, especially for when they take the afternoon nap (la 'sieste'). After the nap, they go out to the school playground (cours de récré) for playtime (la récré). After all that running about everyone is hungry and the school will set up the goûter, French kids' sacrosanct afternoon snack. 
Here are the words you need to know if you have a kid in 'Ecole élémentaire':
The first day of primary school is called the 'rentrée' and it's a big deal. Your kids will be proudly wearing their first school bag (cartable) filled with all the items on the school list: the 'trousse' (pencil case), jotters (cahiers) and everything else they need for school (l'école). Kids go to primary school for 5 years: The first year is called  CP (year 1 in UK) (short for 'cours préparatoire'), then the second year is CE1 (short for 'cours élémentaire'), third year is CE2, 4th is CM1 (short for 'cours moyen') and the 5th year (year 6 in UK and 5th grade in the US) is CM2. If you were used to getting involved in your children's school abroad, you may be surprised by how little daily interaction you have with your kid's French school. On a normal day, children are dropped off outside the school where the headteacher (directrice for a woman or directeur for a man) usually stands each morning, in case you need to talk to him or her. A good way of knowing what's going on inside the school is to become a member of the parent-teacher's association (a 'parent d'élève).
There are lots of other words you'll often hear from your child' primary school, such as:
Kermesse: the school 'fête'; which usually takes place once a year just before the summer holidays. 
Sortie scolaire: a school outing
Accompagnateur or accompagnatrice: the person (often a parent) who accompanies the teacher on a school outing.
Devoirs: homework 
Cahier de texte or agenda: a diary to write down homework.
Dictée: spelling test  
Activités périscolaires: School activities that happen before or after fixed school hours.  
L'étude: a  study period in the school, during which pupils are supposed to do their homework after class.
Centre de loisirs: French school children usually have Wednesday afternoon off and kids who stay on at school after class can attend the 'Centre de Loisirs' where different activites are organised.
Centre aéré: If you have to go to work during the school holidays, you can take your child to the 'Centre aéré'. This is a subsidised government-run holiday day care centre, usually based in the local schools. 
Ateliers: these are activities (sports, art, drama etc…) for children who stay on at school after class – but are not run by the same teams as the 'centre de loisirs'.
Bulletin: school report
Carnet de liaison: a jotter for teachers and parents to write notes to each other
Livret scolaire: this is the pupil's assessment booklet which runs from the CP all the way to the end of the collège. Parents get to see it at the end of each term. 
Tableau: blackboard
Secondary school:
Collège runs from the first year of secondary school for children aged 11 until they are 15 or 16. In the collège, pupils have different teachers called “professeurs” or “prof” for each subject (matière). At the end of the collège, pupils take an exam called the “Brevet“. The collège lasts for 4 years. Year 1 is called the sixième, year 2 the cinquième, year 3 quatrième and year 4 is troisième. Here are some words associated with the collège that you'll often hear. 
Un collégien, une collégienne: a pupil of the collège 
Un prof, une prof: a teacher 
Un pion: slang for the person who supervises children in the playground at school.
Principal: the head teacher in collège
Brevet and Brevet Blanc: the first big general exam that French school children take when they are 15 years old. A Brevet Blanc is the mock exam.
EPS: PE (physical education, sports), short for “Education Physique et Sportive”, 
SVT: Biology, short for “Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre”.  
Mention: students get a 'mention' when they pass an important exam with distinction. There are four grades: “Assez Bien”, “Bien”, “Très Bien”, “Excellent”.  
Bulletin scolaire: school report  
Une colle: a detention.  
Délégué de classe: the student class representative  
CDI: Short for “Centre de Documentation et d’Information”, a place in school where students can use computers, read magazines, newspapers and get general information for their studies.  
Emploi du temps: school timetable 
Lycée, the second and last part of secondary school
Lycée is the last three years of school and it ends with the Baccalauréat exam. Pupils enter the lycée aged 15 and leave at 18. It starts with the seconde, then première and ends with the last year called terminale. In France, there are three types of lycées. The lycée général which prepares students for higher education and the lycée professionnel and lycée technologique which are vocational and train students for specific trades and careers. Here are some words you're likely to come across in the lycée:
Un lycéen, une lycéenne: a student of the lycée
Baccalauréat or just 'Bac': the final school exam.  
TPE: Short for “Travaux Pratiques Encadrés”, a group project that is prepared in the “Terminale” class for the Baccalauréat.
Options: these are extra subjects student choose to take.
Stage: Compulsory work experience.  
Proviseur: the name of the head teacher in lycée
In France, children spend a lot of time in school, but they also spend a lot of time away on long school holidays. Here are the words you need to know about those long breaks.
Vacances: Holidays 
Vacances d’hiver: winter holidays, held in February 
Vacances de printemps: spring holidays, held in April 
Vacances de Noël: Christmas holidays  
Vacances d’été or Grandes Vacances: Summer holidays, they begin in July and last for 2 months 
Vacances de la Toussaint: A break around All Saint's Day holiday on November 1st.
“Faire le pont”: This is when students take an extra day off when a public holiday falls near the weekend.
Colonie de vacances or 'la colo': holiday camp 
Zones A, B and C: Schools in France are in one of three geographical areas 'zone A, B or C”, which each have school holidays on different dates. 

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Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

If you're looking to rent an apartment in a larger city in France, you're likely to see announcements that require a 'garant'. Here is what you need to know about finding a guarantor in France.

Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

Renting in large cities in France – particularly in Paris – is a known challenge for foreigners, especially new arrivals. In the countryside, it’s a bit easier, with less competition properties, but in the big cities compiling your dossier and landing the right place can be a challenge.

One of the biggest surprises for many people is that most landlords ask for a guarantor (garant) in order to sign a lease for an apartment. It is not a legal requirement, but in competitive real estate markets, it certainly feels like one.

Though asking for a garant might feel a bit juvenile, it is quite common, and applies to a lot more people than you might realise. Here is what you need to know:

Who typically needs a guarantor?

The most common group to need guarantors are students. However, if you are a foreigner who is not employed with a CDI (indefinite contract) and if you do not make over three times your monthly rent, you will likely need a guarantor as well.

If you don’t collect your income in France (or if you don’t have an income) you will need a guarantor.

You will also likely need one if you are still in the probationary period of your CDI, or if you cannot show three months worth of pay stubs from your job yet (even if you pay meets the three times a month requirement). If you do have a CDI, you could ask your employer to sign you an attestation d’employeur which verifies your monthly income. 

If your income is not steady or consistent (perhaps you are a freelancer). Typically, if you use an agency during the leasing process, they will require a guarantor, especially if any of these conditions apply to you. 

It is worth noting that showing bank statements typically do not suffice – landlords are looking for proof of ongoing income, not savings.

Who can count as a guarantor?

The guarantor should be a third party, such as a parent or close relative who agrees to pay your rent if you fail to pay.

This person must fulfil all the requirements outlined above (ie earning more than three times your rent with an indefinite contract).

The other tricky part is that this person must work and live in France, and usually it’s best that they are French themselves.

However, this can pose a problem for foreigners who might not know anyone that fits that description, so thankfully there are some other options fill this requirement, like taking out a caution bancaire or using an online agency. We explained the ins-and-outs of these bellow.

What does my guarantor need to show?

The guarantor needs to put together a dossier of documents including;

  • Proof of identification (a passport or French ID card)
  • Proof of residence that is less than three months old (eg utility bills).
  • Most recent tax returns
  • Employment contract and typically three months worth of payslips
  • If they earn money via real estate, they must also provide documentation for this
  • If the person in question is retired, they must provide proof of pension (again, this must exceed your monthly rent threefold). 

So, what if I don’t have a French person who can be my guarantor? There are a few options for you:

Use an online service

There are two main online services that can act as guarantors for foreigners in France.

The first is Visale, which is accessible primarily to foreign students.

This is a programme offered via the French state through “Action Logement” and it covers up to three years of unpaid rent. You must be between 18 and 30 years old to apply, and you must hold a long-stay visa (VLS-TS) – either a student visa or a ‘talent’ one.

For students who are already citizens of a European Union country, then simply presenting a student card and a valid passport will be sufficient. It can be applied to private housing and student residences, but it is ultimately up to the landlord as to whether they will accept a tenant who uses Visale as their guarantor. The main benefit to Visale is that it is free for the user.

Visale does come with some restrictions, however. Your rent (including charges) cannot exceed €1,500 in Paris, and €1,300 in the rest of the country. In addition, the lease must be for a primary residence, and your rent should not exceed 50 percent of your total income.

Another option is GarantMe, a paid online website that can also serve as an official guarantor.

Landlords might actually prefer this service over a physical guarantor who might refuse to pay or for whatever reason not have the funds to do so. The benefit to GarantMe is that they accept a wider range of tenants for their service, but the downside is that there is a fee. The minimum payment (per year) is €150, but the fee is normally 3.5 percent of the annual rent (including charges) and it renews automatically.

The nice thing about GarantMe, is that in order to apply for the service, you basically need to create a full dossier that will be identical to what you’ll need for your apartment search anyways.

Take out a Caution Bancaire

Basically, a caution bancaire is a bank guarantee, and typically its a bit more of a last resort option because it is quite restrictive for the tenant. It involves blocking off a large sum of money to be used to pay rent if you fail to do so.

Depending on the landlord (and the bank), they might ask you to block between six months worth of rent to sometimes up to two years. This would be used as guarantee during the duration of your lease, but it takes a bit of administrative coordination and obviously requires a large sum of liquid funds.

Sometimes activating a bank guarantee can take a few weeks, and for foreigners, of course, this would require already having a French bank account. There can also be fees, depending on the bank, for using a caution bancaire, and simply closing of caution bancaire account in itself can involve fees.

The other downside to this is that not all landlords will accept it, which is why this option might be best served as a last resort.

Attempt to find an apartment that does not require a garant

This is quite difficult in Paris (and other large cities around France). It is possible sometimes if you stick to foreigner-oriented sites like NY Habitat or Paris Attitude. Another possible loophole could be to see if your insurance plan offers coverage of unpaid rent. This is quite uncommon, but could be a possible option. If you rent specifically particulier-à-particulier (meaning you do not use an agency at all) you might be able to negotiate with the landlord, or if you have a sub-lease you might not need to show proof of a guarantor.

Ultimately, however, in most cases when renting in France’s large cities, you’ll likely need a guarantor.

What should I be aware of when it comes to guarantor websites?

As mentioned previously, Visale is only for people in the 18-30 age group, so unfortunately it does not apply to everyone. It is also intended for lower income people or students, so if you are a high earner you might be rejected.

Regarding using a website like GarantMe, beware that they will charge you every year – it is not a one time fee. This will be deducted from the card you put on the site and the only way to cancel the charge will be to show proof that you have moved out (i.e. an état des lieux or letter releasing you from the obligation signed from your landlord)