Wry Society: the French school

By sending her son to l’école, could Sophie herself learn un petit peu about being an effortlessly chic parent? Words by Clare Naylor

Image: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

“Brex-eeet.” Sophie was startled by the woman’s cry as she crossed the park towards Archie’s school for pick-up. She looked around nervously, but rather than a rampaging activist, she was greeted by a glossy French school mum bringing her Irish setter to heel. The woman laughed at Sophie’s alarmed expression. “It’s a good joke, non? His name? I scream Brex-eet all day long!” Sophie smiled weakly and scurried towards the gates of L’Ecole Jeanne d’Arc.

Sophie had imagined, having doggedly held her nerve until her son had reached the top of the waiting list for her local bilingual school (“No fees and just look at the results”), that not only would she and her husband Caspar save a tidy sum (“Might buy that wine wall after all,” he had mused sagely over dinner), but that a little je ne sais quoi might rub off on her. She yearned to be in on the secrets that made the French mothers’ lives run so effortlessly: how they really stopped their children from throwing food and themselves from getting fat. Most of all – yes, she admitted, it was a bit of a girl crush – she yearned to be like Maman Brexit, aka Delphine, la plus chic of all the gris-clad, thoroughbred-legged women who clamoured noisily around the school gates.   

Ahead of Archie’s first day, Sophie had optimistically purchased some Repetto ballet flats and given up eating. In the park after school each day, she attempted to deploy the key rule of French parenting, “C’est Maman qui décide.” Archie, though, was genetically incompatible with this concept and Sophie invariably found herself engaged in an undignified tug-of-war with a stick, which resulted in Archie having a tantrum and Sophie mopping her tears with the sleeve of her new Isabel Marant blouse. All the while Delphine et al looked on in disbelief, their own children idling obediently nearby, pristine in Bonpoint.

As the year progressed, the quoi remained an enigma. From what Sophie could glean, it wasn’t that the French children were better behaved than hers – just as long as the parents weren’t around to witness their petits choux hurling baguettes and swear words, everything was fine. A natural conformist, Sophie was horrified by the idea of turning a blind eye and disregarding government guidelines. Without Revolution in her veins, she knew she’d never fit in. 

By the summer term, Sophie was seriously considering defecting to the local private school where a black Range Rover and a bobble hat were all you needed to belong. So what if Archie never sang “Pomme d’Api” in the bath and her cherished Francophile dream died a tragic death? At least Sophie wouldn’t have to scuttle into school every day feeling she’d failed the audition for la vie.  

Things finally came to a head at a particularly challenging Jolly Phonics meeting. As the mothers bantered flirtatiously with Monsieur Lafitte and Sophie pretended to understand the French jokes, she found herself sitting next to the fragrant Delphine, who had arrived late. “This is so boring.” Delphine folded her arms in irritation. “They can’t just teach them to read the way we learnt? It has to be fun? Why?” There was a snort of laughter that, as silence descended, Sophie realised to her horror was her own. 

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Monsieur Lafitte threw her a death-stare. “Silence! S’il vous plaît,” he yelled.  

Pardon,” Sophie mumbled and sank down in her seat. Her mortification was complete – she was the English mother who could neither speak, dress nor behave properly. Utterly ashamed of herself, Sophie snatched up her handbag and what was left of her dignity and headed for the door, vowing to call Janice, the nice lady in admissions at the private school, the moment she got out of the building.

“Ah, you’re escaping?” a delighted Delphine whispered to the disappearing Sophie, mistaking a hasty retreat for devil-may-care hauteur. “Veux tu un café?

“OK.” Sophie could hardly believe her luck. “Anything to get out of here,” she said with a toss of her head, trying on her newly found insouciance for size.

Allez. Vite.” Delphine laughed as they narrowly avoided Monsieur Lafitte’s magic marker, which hurtled in their direction. “Let’s go to the café on the corner and have a cigarette.” 

Bonne idée.” Sophie smiled triumphantly, having never smoked in her life. “Pourquoi pas?

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