The biggest culture shocks foreign students face in France

Paris-Saclay University  on the outskirts of Paris. Public universities in France do not charge EU students tuition fees.
Paris-Saclay University on the outskirts of Paris. Public universities in France do not charge EU students tuition fees. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP.
France is one of the most popular destinations in the world for international students, but for those who are used to studying in English-speaking countries, there are a number of things about French universities, and student life, that take some getting used to.

Of course, the main difference is the price. Students in France pay just €170 per year at undergraduate level, and €243 for a master’s degree. Recent reforms have made this a lot more expensive for people without an EU passport – €2,770 and €3,770 – although some universities have refused to raise fees for foreign students.

The reality though is that France’s commitment to cheap public education is at the centre of a very different conception of what university is supposed to be. This, along with the usual culture shocks involved when moving to a new country, means that foreign students can find it difficult to adjust.

Here are some of the biggest differences you’ll find when studying in France.

It’s worth noting that if you’re attending a fee-paying university such as Sciences Po, you might find the experience is closer to what you’d expect in English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO Eight ways to save money in France as a student

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Everyone goes home at the weekend

Since undergraduate courses on offer at different French universities are largely similar, it’s very common for students to go to their local institution. As a consequence, a large proportion go home to stay with their family every weekend.

If you’re living in student accommodation, you will witness this shift every Friday, as the hallways empty out and people leave carrying heavy duffel bags full of dirty clothes, looking like they’re heading off to war.

That means the weekends are quiet, and by extension, Thursday is the traditional student night when young people will hit the bars and clubs in town. So if you make friends in your classes, be prepared for messages asking for your notes from any Friday morning lectures.

There are lots of classes

Although university is very cheap in France, students here are made to take more classes than they would in many other countries. Public university students spend on average 19 hours in class every week; humanities students have the fewest contact hours, with 15 on average.

If you’re from a country such as the UK where students, particularly in the humanities, are encouraged to do lots of reading outside of class hours, be prepared for shocked looks when you tell people how many contact hours you had back home, and how much you were paying for them.

Students at Paris-Saclay University. Students in France spend a lot of time in the classroom.

Students in France spend a lot of time in the classroom. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP.

Expectations

While you’re likely to have more classes, lots of this time will be taken up by presentations. Oral presentations are a more common evaluation method than essays in France, and once you get to the second half of the semester it’s not unusual to have a two-hour class which is entirely dedicated to student presentations.

And it’s not just the number of presentations that may come as a surprise, but also the format. While it’s not a requirement at university, French students are conditioned from an early age to structure presentations in three parts, plus an introduction and conclusion, with each of the three parts typically having two or three sub-sections. So while many professors will appreciate creativity, it’s still important to have a clear structure.

It’s even more likely there will be a firm expectation of this three-part structure – which often takes the form of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” – for written essays.

It can seem chaotic

Studying at university is a good introduction into the world of French bureaucracy, and you’ll soon learn to stop asking “why?” and accept that some things are out of your control.

Above all, once you realise they’ll change the room your class is in at the last minute and everyone seems to get the memo except for you, you’ll get into the habit of checking the notice board outside of your department’s secretarial office every morning.

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There aren’t as many clubs

This is definitely one thing which will differ depending on whether you’re at a public or private university. But generally speaking, you’re unlikely to find the same variety of clubs and student societies you might be used to back home.

You will be able to meet people through sports, since most universities have a service called SUAPS which organises a plethora of different sports activities. However, don’t expect to find a ‘Harry Potter society’, or other incredibly specific clubs, neither do French universities usually have fraternities or sororities.

READ ALSO These are the culture shocks you will experience as a foreign student in Paris

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Fortunately, you can meet other foreign students by attending activities and trips run by the Erasmus Student Network. The association is present in 37 French cities, and they organise events which help you to meet people and discover the culture as well as trips to other cities in France.

Sharing is caring

If you do manage to make a connection with a group of locals, you’ll find that the French social life is pretty similar to what you’re used to, with only slight differences. Students still like to organise pre-drinks to socialise and get drunk on cheap alcohol before heading into town, although they use a different English term – le before – to describe this ritual.

But it’s the small differences that can take you by surprise. For example, it’s common at parties in France to coordinate with the rest of the group beforehand so that not everybody brings the same thing, because once you arrive, everything is shared, so you might not even end up drinking what you brought. Don’t be surprised then if you’re at a party and see someone you don’t know helping themselves to the wine you brought.

Of course, if you’re from the United States, it might come as a shock simply seeing 18-year-old students being allowed into bars and clubs.

Clouds of smoke

Since most lectures in France last two hours, it’s common for professors to give you a break halfway through, and most students will head outside, either to smoke or to accompany their friends, leaving just a few students alone in the classroom. If the professor is a smoker, they might even announce it as a pause clope (smoking break), and it will last the time it takes to go outside, smoke a cigarette, and come back.

Here, the clichés are true, at least to an extent. Young people in France are among the most likely in Europe to smoke. 23.5 percent of French people aged 15 to 24 are daily smokers, compared to 16 percent across the whole of the EU, according to Eurostat figures from 2014.

Student housing

Just as classrooms and lecture theatres are usually pretty basic, since most people aren’t paying expensive tuition fees, so student housing in France is designed to be cheap and cheerful.

The CROUS university accommodation is genuinely affordable, since as well as international students, it’s mostly targeted at students from low-income families. It’s a great way to save money for doing all the fun things you have planned for your year abroad, but if it’s luxury you’re after, you’d be much better off looking into private housing.

READ ALSO Five crucial tips for Americans who want to study in France


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