"Recently I was told about the cartoon Martin Matin, I had no idea what it was!" Just graduated from the law school of Sciences-po, Rachel* lists with a laugh these French cultural references that are still obscure to her. Contrary to what one might think, she did not grow up with the Gulli chain lit at breakfast.
Because Rachel, born in the south of France, went to live on the other side of the globe when she was only 2 and a half years old, the whole family having followed the professional transfer of her father. Heading to Beijing, then the move to Chengdu, in western China, and finally the departure for Taiwan, where she will study until obtaining an International Baccalaureate (IB), before returning to France in 2018 to join the Le Havre campus of Sciences-po.
According to the Ministries of Europe and Foreign Affairs, nearly 2.5 million French expats live beyond the borders, including a large part on the European continent, the United States or Canada. While some children continue their studies abroad, others like Rachel choose to return to study in France. They often join prestigious training.
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But the return to the fold is not always easy, between the rediscovery of the French school system and the reconnection with a country of origin not or little known.
A cultural and linguistic gap
For these students, getting back into the "French" cultural bath is sometimes a major challenge. "Bise is something that is not done at all in Asia. It's also not done to drink or eat in transport, whereas in France, it is, "says Rachel. An observation shared by Manon, who left Poissy at the age of two. Initially educated in Washington, D.C., her family eventually moved to Tokyo, where she attended the French high school in the capital.
"In France, if you make a spelling mistake, it's the end of the world!"
Manon, who left France at the age of two
"I didn't experience street harassment in Japan: I could go out alone at any time, I was never afraid," explains the young girl, who also arrived at the Le Havre campus of Sciences-po almost 5 years ago. Another culture shock: food. "I ate Asian morning, noon and night. It felt weird the first time I bought a steak and pasta at the supermarket! »
Speaking French is not necessarily self-evident either, especially when you have evolved in an English-speaking environment. For Alisa, a 22-year-old French-Japanese who has just completed a double degree at Keio University in Tokyo, speaking out was even a source of concern. "I studied French when I was in high school in Vancouver, Canada. When I started my bachelor's degree at Sciences-po, some classmates noted that I used expressions that were not very "French", or that I made some mistakes when speaking. It's not bad, but it contributes to this feeling of linguistic insecurity. The same goes for Manon, who notes that in France, "if you make a spelling mistake, it's the end of the world! »
The French school system, instructions for use?
Arriving in higher education, some often note differences with their previous experiences as expatriate students. Paul, who is finishing his first year at HEC at only 19 years old, chose a prep in France to join the school, "an environment where we work a lot, while in French high schools abroad, we have more freedoms".
For Manon, it was the exercise of the presentation that destabilized her: "In Japan, we did not speak in front of the class, which was very small by the way. We were 30 in terminale. As for the typically French format of the essay, it was not to Rachel's liking, who took time "to find the problem", being initially schooled at the English school in Taipei.
She also had the feeling of being "late" when she arrived at her master's degree in law, "for example in philosophy or general culture, since we do not necessarily study the same social phenomena in class". "In the United States, I have the feeling that teachers adapt to students, that several methods are accepted to achieve the same result. In France, it's quite the opposite," Thomas said.
French culture is also emblematic for its administrative procedures... Complex. Not everyone is equal in the face of CAF or Sécu: Manon found herself "completely lost", while Rachel found her social security number "only 2 years ago, without understanding what it was".
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For Thomas, it was the new Parcoursup system that gave him a hard time: a brilliant student enrolled at the French high school in New York for 6 years, he applied to several universities in the United States and Canada. When he looks at the options available to him in France, he is confused: "I have the impression that many schools and prepas are reluctant to accept expats who do not have a French baccalaureate. They do not try to understand the why and how, even when we try to provide documents and explain our journey, which can be difficult to translate for the French school system. Thomas finally joined an English-language curriculum at École Centrale Supélec in September 2023, at just 18 years old.
"I don't feel legitimate"
If the status of expat may fascinate some comrades, others may be "a little disturbed" by these atypical profiles, according to Paul, "but it is much appreciated on the job market". And while life abroad has its advantages, other, more negative aspects don't immediately come to mind. "Where am I from, actually? When you meet people and they ask you this question, it's very difficult to answer," says Rachel.
"I am very attached to the France, I came back because I had a real lack of the country"
Thomas, enrolled this year in English-language curriculum at CentraleSupélec
"I don't feel legitimate," Manon adds, "I'm afraid people will think I'm arrogant if I list all the countries I've lived in." Not to mention family reunions, holidays or deaths, "for which we will not be able to make the round trip every 6 months" according to Paul. For Thomas, remembering that he is French is also important: "I don't like it when people call me the American. I am very attached to the France, I came back because I had a real lack of the country. »
But then, where do they project themselves after their higher education in France? Again, ideas differ: Thomas could see himself starting his career in North America, while Alisa would like to stay in France for a while. Rachel is thinking about tying the two threads of her story through her job: "My vocation is to work in the public service, so it remains a very strong link with the France. However, I want to keep this international side, and why not work abroad for my country. »