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La rentrée – France’s Season of Change

The term la rentrée in it’s most literal sense means “the re-entry” or “the return.” However, it’s one of those French words that takes on myriad socio-cultural meanings, depending on who you talk to.  In general, la rentrée refers to the period after les vacances (vacation/break) in July and August. The closest thing we have in the U.S. to France’s la rentrée is “back to school.” However, la rentrée in France has to do with much more than just the beginning of the school year. There are essentially four types of rentrées, all of which take place in late August and early September each year.

eiffel-tower-nightIndeed, the most obvious rentrée is la rentrée scolaire– students throughout France start school on the same day (this year it was on Wednesday, September 2). This countrywide return to the classroom is preceded by weeks of televised debates regarding national education and school supplies funding for underprivileged families. Shoppers will see plenty of advertisements for les affaires de la rentrée (back to school sales) in the local papers and store windows. Similar to our situation in the U.S., this year’s rentrée scolaire is complicated by discussions and debate surrounding how to handle the la grippe H1N1 or la grippe porcine (swine flu) and minimize the risk of an outbreak.

There is also the political rentrée, during which the president comes back from vacation and gets back to the business of running the country. This is also the month in which the socialist party holds its annual conference, l’université d’été. This year it will take place in La Rochelle, located in southwestern France on the Bay of Biscay.

My favorite time of year is the literary rentrée. This is when the new works from France’s best writers (and/or translators in the case of foreign titles) hit the shelves. Typically, between 600- 800 new books are published during the annual rentrée littéraire.  This year there are 700 novels and 200 essays being featured. Publishing is France’s largest cultural industry- between 300 and 400 million books are sold in France each year. The rentrée littéraire is the most important period in the publishing year. It begins the last week in August and culminates in November with the announcement of authors who have won the country’s top literary awards, such as the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot. One of the most talked about books of the 2009 rentree litteraire has been Marie Ndiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes, the story of three women fighting to keep their dignity in the face of life’s challenges. Ndiaye won the Prix Femina in 2001 for her first book, Rose Carpe.

And don’t forget about the media- they get their own rentrée as well. This is the time when the TV and radio stations change their jingles or schedules, and the usual presenters return to the evening news shows after their vacations.

La rentrée is an exciting and energizing time to be in France. During this period, one cannot help but be reminded of France’s commitment to information and education, as well as the widespread importance of the country’s literary, cultural and intellectual traditions.

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