French 2024 Bac exams begin and why philosophy is always first

Philosophy is an obligatory subject in France. See this year’s questions for the exam

The four-hour exam requires students to write a lengthy essay

Final-year exams begin today (June 18) for over half a million students in France, as the 2024 ‘Bac’ season begins.

Students on the ‘general’ and ‘technical’ pathways of the Baccalaureate – the final year of secondary education in France – will sit a four-hour long philosophy exam, the first of a number of tests over the next few weeks.

Since 1970, every year – with the exception of 2023 – has seen the ‘Bac’ begin with the philosophy examination. 

This year’s questions range from ‘Can science satisfy our need for truth?’ and ‘Does the state owe us anything?’ to ‘Is nature hostile to man?’ and ‘Is the artist master of his/her work?’

Students will also need to write a commentary on a famous philosophical text, either from Simone Weil or Plato.

However, changes in 2019 to the way secondary education works, spearheaded by then education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, reduced the importance of the philosophy exam to a student’s final overall grade.

This in turn has led some to question whether the exam, noted for its difficulty and the stress it can cause students, should retain its historical launch spot or be moved elsewhere in the calendar. 

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How does the exam slot into a student’s final grade? 

Unlike in the UK, philosophy is a mandatory subject in France, with most students taking lessons until the age of 18.

Students must study philosophy, alongside French, a combined history-geography class, a modern language, a combined sciences class, and sport, all the way until the end of their schooling if taking one of the two main Baccalaureate streams.

They also study a number of subjects related to the ‘pathway’ they are on, such as literature, dedicated sciences such as biology or physics, mathematics, etc.

Depending on the pathway, final-year students must study philosophy for two or four hours per week.

Prior to 2019, students on the ‘literature’ stream, which no longer exists, spent eight hours per week studying the subject.

The 2019 changes also placed more emphasis on continual examination – i.e smaller tests throughout the year, contributing to a final overall grade in a subject – but the end-of-schooling test still makes up 60% of all final philosophy grades. 

Philosophy itself, however, accounts for less than 10% of a student’s overall Baccalaureate score and less than 5% for those on the ‘technical’ stream. 

The exam, however, remains one of the longest in the calendar, and some students say the length and strenuous nature of it cause undue stress.

Despite the low overall significance it has on a student’s final grade, its appearance at the beginning of the calendar – and its length – means many hours are spent studying for the exam.

Many also see the first slot in the exam seasons as a confidence booster – if you receive a good grade in your first exam, you are more motivated and confident about the rest.

Philosophy is notorious for being a tricky paper, and often students leave exam halls feeling deflated as if they have fallen at the first hurdle.

However, in 2023, exams in students’ chosen subjects were brought forward, and philosophy was placed at the end of the calendar. 

It means students already knew around 80% of their final grade, giving philosophy little weight, and de-motivating students from trying for the exam.

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Philosophical heritage, or administrative ease? 

It may be tempting to think that the reason philosophy is the first exam is because of France’s heritage in the subject. 

Some of the most well-known philosophers including Descartes, Michel de Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire – the list really can go on – were French, writing partly or wholly in the language. 

In the 20th century, the ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy largely centred upon French authors and philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Foucault.

Some of these philosophers became celebrities and global household names, well into the 1980s – when philosophy was already the first exam students would sit. 

The French are subsequently stereotyped as a cultured nation, one of thinkers, and the concept of mandatory philosophy classes plays into this. 

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However, the real reason philosophy is the first exam subject may be slightly less romantic.

"Philosophy papers take a long time to mark” due to their length “and the assessors need to be given more time, which is why we start with this,” said historian of education Claude Lelièvre to Le Parisien

There are fewer philosophy teachers than other mandatory subjects – in part because the classes take up fewer hours of a student’s overall week – meaning each teacher has more papers to mark, needing even more time. 

It seems, therefore, that philosophy is set to retain its place as the traditional curtain opener of exam season, but students may continue changing their attitude towards the paper.