The baccalaureate (usually known as the "Bac") is the name of the exam taken at the end of secondary school in France. The baccalaureate comes in 3 main flavours :

  • Général : the only one I have personal experience of. It is the most academic and open ended of the 3.
  • Professionel : These are actually vocational trainings, one can for instance do a catering "Bac professionel".
  • Téchnologique : with numerous options this Bac, which is almost as academic as the Bac général. allows students to specialise early on.
All papers in the baccalaureate are marked out of 20 (marks must be integers). Once this has been done the student's final mark is calculated by taking a weighted average of the marks. If your final mark is below 8, then you have failed.
Between 8 and 10 you have still failed, but you are eligible to take up to 6 "oraux de rattrapage". The marks from these orals will replace the marks obtained on the written papers you had done. Thus if you do very badly in a subject where you were capable of doing well, this may save your life.
If your mark (possibly after the orals) is above 10 then congratulations ! You have just passed. The way French higher education works this is almost always sufficient.
If however you have a desire for greater glory, you may aim for one of the "mentions". These are :
  • Mention assez bien (quite good, although this is a bit of an understatement): overall mark of 12 or above
  • Mention bien (good): overall mark of 14 or above
  • Mention très bien (very good): overall mark of 16 or above
  • Mention très bien avec félicitations du jury(very good with the compliments of the jury): overall mark of 18 or above

I will now concentrate on the Baccalauréat général. It is not possible to choose which subjects to do for the Baccalauréat général (hereafter refered to as the "Bac") in the way one can with exams such as A-Levels or the IB. Your main choice is in between 3 types. Most subjects are common to all 3 types, but with different weightings. The 3 Types are S (Scientifique), ES (Economique et Social), L (Littéraire). The subjects for each of these types are (the numbers in brackets are the coefficients):

  • S: In addition to this you may choose up to 2 options which are either : a second language, latin or computing. For options any points above 10 are added to your total number of points (before it is divided by the sum of the coefficients). You also choose a speciality which is either Maths, Biology or physics and chemistry. The subject you choose has its coefficient increased by 2. You also have more lessons in that subject and one of the questions in the exam will be replaced by one on the extra material you have covered.
  • ES:The following options are available: Lettres (basically more litterature), Science, Computing.
    Like with the S Bac, you have to choose a speciality which can either be Maths, Economics, reinforced 1st language or a 3rd language. If you choose Maths or economics, then it works in a similar way to the S Bac: the coefficient in that subject is increased by 2. If you choose reinforced 1st language, then in addition to the written paper in that language you also take an oral (coefficient 2). Lastly 3rd language means that you take a coefficient 2 oral in a language which isn't either of your other 2 languages.
  • L:For L possible specialities are : a 3rd Language (oral, coefficient 4), reinforced 1st language (an additional coefficient 4 oral for your first foreign language), Maths (coefficient 4). Your choice of options is either an extra language, computing or art.

You may well be surprised at the number of subjects we have to do, after all your average A-Level student will be doing 3, maybe 4 subjects. While it is true (particularly in the case of the combined subjects) that the French curriculum sometimes goes into less depth, it is also true that students have quite a heavy workload. Other than the sheer number of subjects, the other thing you might notice is the breadth of the subjects. No one gets away from french lit. or philosophy. In England I would have probably done double maths, physics and chemistry A-Levels, whereas I had to keep doing litterature, history, biology...It's my personal opinion that this is a good thing as it makes us more open-minded and gives us at least basic knowledge in many subjects. It also avoids people arriving at university (or possibly their first job) and having to write essays or reports even though they haven't written an essay in years.

The French baccalaureate has its failings though. While the ES Bac is a perfectly good bac the L and S Bacs tend to rank higher than it. If you want to go to a grand école (the most prestigious universities in France) such as HEC (the most prestigious one for economics), you really want to be doing a Bac S and not a Bac ES. One of the reasons for this is perhaps that while a number of people take an ES Bac because they have a genuine interest in that area, quite a large proportion end up in ES because their school didn't reckon they were good enough for an S Bac. While there are certainly benefits in encouraging a broad education it can be a bit of a pain too. For example if you are a biologist at heart having such a large proportion of your final mark to be decided by maths and physics can be tough.

All in all though I tend to prefer the baccalaureate to exams like A-Levels. In addition to the advantages outlined above the approach tends to be different. In particular maths is taught (and examined) in a more rigorous way and one which prepares better for University level maths.

The written exams for Bac are usually spread over about a week in the middle of June (the French lit. paper and oral are taken a year early) and the results usually come out in early July (this year they were out on the 5th). There are 2 main reasons why they mark the papers an order of magnitude faster than in the UK (where IIRC results come out towards the end of August). First they basically lock a bunch of teachers in a room and don't let them out until they've marked all the scripts they've been given. The second reason is that if you are a teacher in France you don't choose whether or not you'll be marking papers: you get "called up" or you don't, it's a bit like national service really!