Ian Moore: back to school in France

Back to school in France © Andy Robert Davies

Back to school in France © Andy Robert Davies - Credit: Archant

As France prepares for the back to school rentrée, Ian Moore thinks he’s made a discovery about the effect of heavy school bags on the health and height of the French population

Having previously shown how heavily I’ve relied on the physical strength of the locals here, there is, however, something of an anomaly I noticed recently. On average, the French are shorter. I am just shy of 5’11” (5’10”) yet I can stand on a Paris Métro, look grandly down the carriage and be one of the tallest there. On the London Underground, if I tried the same, all I’d get is a view of other people’s nasal hair.

And so, on the basis of this exhaustive study, I repeat, the French are shorter. I know that more firebrand ‘political correctees’ would balk at such a claim, but I’ve complemented my own research and apparently it’s something to do with Vikings.

The further south you go, where the Vikings had run out of steam, well nowadays, those areas have a slightly shorter population. That’s the official line, don’t blame me… though I do have my own theory: school bags.

September in France is known as ‘la rentrée’, and, like the Tuesday after a bank holiday in the UK, an entire nation begrudgingly returns to work and school, occasionally standing stock still, a wistful, faraway look in its collective eye and sighs. The summer is over, back to the grind. The rentrée in France isn’t just a time of year; it’s a state of mind, with no UK equivalent. ‘Back to school’ doesn’t even begin to cover it and the French lunchtime news programmes, never overburdened with geopolitical analysis, are full of items like ‘quieter beaches’, early autumn sun and the annual staple, ‘Are children’s school bags just too big?’

I’m serious, this question is asked every year and, in my opinion, quite rightly so. Here in France, cartables (satchel school bags) are literally a big business. In the UK, trainers are the hot topic for pupils of all ages, as they are here too, but les cartables are a close second. Nor are they cheap at around €60, so woe betide if you try and skimp by fobbing one of your children off with a school bag sponsored by last year’s superhero of choice. Believe me I’ve tried. “Oh daddy, not Batman! Everybody’s into Spiderman this year…”

It’s the sheer size and weight of them though – a para at the height of their training would buckle under the weight and size of one of these things. Every year there are children starting school for the first time who are smaller than the bags they’re carrying. And because they appear to have to carry all their textbooks as well as the stationery – schools rarely have lockers – the weight is immense. Think about it, that’s like working on a production line and having to stagger in with your own lathe every day.

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It’s quite a sight to see at the school gates: hundreds of little children all queuing up to go in barely able to remain upright under the weight like a crowd of Lilliputian Atlas statues. Inevitably, the proximity to each other and the sheer weight they’re carrying will have a tragic domino effect as they all go over one by one. Not only a screaming terrified mass on their first day but now utterly incapable of getting themselves upright again like a colony of beetles, their encumbrances holding them to the floor while their tiny arms and legs desperately flail about looking for leverage.

I firmly believe that these early school burdens play a significant role in the collective French spinal column development. If the population is shorter than its European neighbours, and I think my research proves it is, then lunchtime news programmes are quite right to investigate. Maybe even asking ‘Isn’t it time we changed?’ At least, that’s the question the bronzed news anchor would be asking if he wasn’t hollow behind the eyes and still dreaming of his holiday…


Read more of Ian’s observations about French life:

The perils of the French lanaguage

The differences between French and British comedy

How many times should you kiss in France?