This fall, my three-year-old started maternelle, a non-compulsory, public pre-K. Gone are those innocent days of babyhood at the wonderful state-subsidized crèche (where care is provided Monday through Friday between eight in the morning and seven at night). This feels like real school now, and already in the first month, it has brought into stark relief some of the best and worst aspects of life in 21st-century France. Last Friday, an email from the director popped up in my phone, alerting parents that the students conducted “a training exercise to react if there was an intrusion into the school.” The goal, the director explained, “was to be locked in classrooms, to lie on the ground or hide (in classes), and to be silent for a few minutes.”
The following afternoon at a birthday party, my wife and I found ourselves discussing the director’s email over champagne and Twix bars with the parents of a classmate of my daughter. The mother owns a branding company and the father is an executive at a large fashion label. Like many of the parents at this neighborhood public school, they could easily afford to enroll their child in private school, but they aren’t even tempted to. This is one of the things I admire most about France, and that I’ve come to appreciate, especially when I talk to my brother, who is raising a family in Brooklyn. Although Catholic and Montessori schools certainly exist here, there is nothing like the two-tiered system—one for the affluent, another for everyone else—that many of my American friends must learn to navigate.
Of course, salaries are higher in places like San Francisco or New York, but even nannies are subsidized here. We’ve been fortunate to find an incredible one to pick our daughter up. Which brings me to one of the least flattering features of contemporary France: he’s a 30-year-old engineer out of work.