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France, officially known as the French Republic, is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe, whose total land area includes a number of overseas islands and territories, all located on other continents and in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. Often called the “hexagon” for its unique geometric shape, the metropolitan area in France stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel to the North Sea, and from the Rhine River to the Atlantic Ocean. By area (261,000 square miles), France is the largest country in Western Europe, and the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world, after the United States. The capital and largest city in France is Paris, the “City of Lights, as it is called, well known as the “fashion capital of the world,” among other things.
According to census estimates, France has a permanent population of 66 million, making it the 20th most populous nation in the world. Eighty-one percent of French residents are native or ethnic French, while foreign-born residents, who account for roughly one-sixth of the population, hail mostly from other European nations (5 million), particularly Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the United Kingdom. There are also approximately 4 million French inhabitants who are of Maghreb origin. The official language of France is French, a romance language derived from the old Latin. This is used almost exclusively throughout France and is the language for all official business within the government, including education. Other languages can also be heard occasionally in the country, including Spanish, English and Italian.
Education in France
The education system in France is overseen and regulated by the Ministry of National Education, of which the “Minister of National Education,” one of the highest-ranking officials in the French cabinet, is the head. The education system is highly centralized, organized and valued, divided into three separate stages: primary education (enseignement primaire), secondary education (enseignement secondaire) and higher education (enseignement supérieur).
The curriculum at both the primary and secondary schools in France is the same for all French students in any given grade, regardless of whether it’s a public, semi-public or subsidized institution. However, there are certain specialized course sections once a student enters secondary school and a variety of options in terms of elective (non-core) classes.
Although school is not mandatory until age 6, the first year of primary school, the French system of education does includes 3 years of nursery school/kindergarten, beginning at age 3 if the parents so desire. Beginning at age 6, students will move on to primary school, at which the next five years of their education will be administered. In the initial four years, called cours préparatoire, students will learn to write and improve their reading skills, and will be slowly introduced to subjects such as mathematics, science, French and the humanities. Classes are taught by a single instructor throughout primary school, and in the fifth year students will are given the tools they need to be successful at the next level: secondary school.
Secondary education is divided into two levels and two types of institutions: colleges, a four-year program for 11-15-year olds, equivalent to junior high school in North America; and lycees, a three-year program for 15-18-year old students. During these seven years of schooling students will receive instruction in all major academic subject areas. Those attending the lycee can choose either general, or academic education, or vocational education. Students who successfully complete their secondary education are awarded the baccalauréat, equivalent to the high school diploma and mandatory for university admission.
Higher education in France is provided by the many universities in the country. Much like the rest of Europe, in France the system of higher education was recently restructured, according to the guidelines and provisions set forth by the Bologna Process. The new structure, which aims to facilitate student transfer between universities in participating countries, is divided into three levels: Licence and Licence Professionnelle (Bachelor degree and Professional Bachelor), typically spanning 3 and 4 years respectively; the Master’s stage, spanning two years; and the Doctorat, or Doctorate degree, usually lasting 3-4 years depending on the program.