The French words international students in France need to know

Studying abroad can be a challenge, and in France it's not made easier by the multitude of administrative terms swarming academic life. As universities reopen, we have made a language survival guide to help you navigate the new semester.

The French words international students in France need to know
Students in a classroom at Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. Photo: AFP

Seeing as this year's rentrée universitaire (university semester start) is so different due to Covid-19 health conditions, it's almost comforting to know that some things remain the same, like the French language laying out a cobweb of traps and challenges foreigners must overcome.

This is especially true in academic life, which is rife with administrative terms that will make you dizzy just by looking at them.

Here's a selected list of some of the most common ones and what they mean.

Pré-rentrée: Before the real rentrée (the day universities reopen), there is a pre-rentrée, an orientation week where students get information about the new year. This usually consists of presentations where faculty staff explain administrative procedures. Sometimes you get to meet your teacher, some universities organise group tours around campus. Usually student organisations take part too. Some universities hold special pre-rentrées for international students, but not all of them, so you may have to sit through some presentations in French.

READ ALSO: Why la rentrée means so much more in France that a new school year

Dossier d’inscription: This is the file that, once filled out, will validate your registration into the university. Know that the administrations of French universities are known to be slow and not very responsive so brace yourself for a wait. Generally you will be asked to provide an ID and record of your grades, while having to file forms with your personal information (where you live, what you studied before and where…).

Pass NAVIGO: A Navigo pass is the travel card used by most Parisians to get around. It’s quite pricey (about €800 for an annual subscription), but as a student, you can benefit from the Imagine R pass, which is cheaper (€350 for a year, knowing that this sum of money can be spread on 9 months). For that you will need to provide proof of your student status when creating your pass either online or in a NAVIGO agency.

A Navigo pass. Photo: AFP

CROUS: It’s a regional organisation providing many things for students such as student residences (with cheaper rents), student restaurants (inside and outside of universities) where you can get a meal for €1 if you benefit from a bursary (also granted by the CROUS) and even cultural activities for students.

Résidence étudiante: These two words generally refer to the accommodation proposed by the CROUS. In order to obtain a room or an apartment from the organisation, you will need to apply on their website. Be aware that in very popular regions such as Paris, it is quite complicated to find one.  


READ ALSO: What international students should know before apartment hunting in Paris


Bourse: It’s a bursary that is normally granted by the CROUS to students who’s parents’ earnings are not enough to support them throughout their studies. European students who have studied in France for at least one year are eligible to apply for the CROUS needs-based bursary.

Carte étudiante: It’s the student card that will be given to you once you are enrolled. You’ll need it to pass your exams as well as to benefit from student discounts in many shops, cinemas and museums.

TD: Stands for travaux dirigés which are seminars, or small groups lessons. 

Amphi: Technically it’s amphithéâtre but you will always hear that your next class is held in the amphi – the lecture theatre.

UNEF: This acronym stands for French national student union. It's the biggest representative student union in France (its members are present in every university). 

Blocus: In reaction to a specific government decision that could negatively impact schools and universities, it is common for students or members of the university staff to organise a “blockade”, or a strike where students demonstrate in front of their university building, in hopes that the decision will change. It can lead to entire campuses being shut down for weeks and, if it happens during exam period, for these to be cancelled or held online. 

Students march against the planed university fee rise for international students (2018). Photo: AFP

READ ALSO: Anti-reform students blockade French universities

Manif: Short for demonstration, a manif is often organised in tandem with a blocus but a lot are also organised throughout the year to support different causes (students' rights, women's rights…).

Salle: This word will be everywhere on your timetable, it means 'room' and indicates you in which part of the university your class is taking place. They are usually written as “B23”, with the letter standing for the building and the number for the floor where the classroom is located. 

Licence: It's the word for Bachelor's Degree, in France, it's 3 years. 

Master: It's the word for Master’s degree, in France it lasts 2 years. 

Doctorat: Doctorate is the name of the degree (PHD), often confused with thèse (thesis), which is the word for the research dissertation you have to write and present to a jury in order to become a Doctor. 

Mémoire: It's the word for the research dissertation or the document you write on a specific topic and then present to a jury of professors to validate your degree (a bachelor’s, master’s or PDH). 

BDE: It stands for bureau des étudiants or the student association. Its members organise sports events, parties and even trips for students. 

Apéro: The soirées étudiantes (student parties) are held on Thursday nights, which generally start with an apéro (pre-party/dinner drinks).  

By Gwendoline Gaudicheau

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.