For me, the defining moment at Paris I as a student of law on the maitrîse intégrée (a split course between Paris I and some other non-French law faculty, in my case King's College, London), took place on September 26, 2006. All us Anglo-French, Franco-German, Franco-Spanish and Franco-American student bums were sat in one of the amphis in the Faculté de Droit and underwent a pep talk from the President of the College welcoming us all, in which he told us basically how lucky we were to be here in this esteemed seat of learning, which was, in his words, "founded when Oxford was just a place where shepherds drove their flocks over the river and Cambridge was but a provincial market town." It was at this point that a mate of mine, who we'll call Ben, turned round to face me and whispered ostentatiously, "Fuck, what a crashing bore. He loves his job far too much."
I could not help but agree.
Of course, I doubt this is SOP for incoming students at Paris I, French universities being, as they are, a scrum down, especially in the early years, but it certainly goes a long way towards explaining some of the more offbeat (well, offbeat to my English sensibilities anyhow) features of higher education at same. However, peculiarities aside, its status as an institute of education cannot be denied. In this writeup, I shall attempt to give the general noder populace at least some insight into the place, both from a general point of view, and from a more personal, specific, student's-eye view.
La Sorbonne - Qu'est-ce que c'est?
The Université de Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne), also known colloquially as "the Sorbonne" is one of thirteen public universities in Paris and has existed in its current form since the law of 12 November, 1968 which reformed the university system in France after the évenements of May '68. I'm not going to go into a full history of the university and how it and the other twelve facs in Paris are descended from the ancient ecclesiastically based University of Paris for that could fill a whole other node just by itself, however, I will mention that its name comes from the 13th-century theologian Robert de Sorbon who established the Sorbonne in 1257, which grew into the core of the historical University of Paris. Nowadays, Paris I has several campuses, libraries, and such around the city and 40,000 students registered to one of its various disciplines. For the record, all the colleges of the University of London (KCL, Imperial, LSE, &c.) have but 100,000; but this figure can be explained by the fact that England and France have utterly different university admission systems, as we'll see below.
It's also a pretty damn good university, from an academic point of view, and they like to show it. From the statues of eminent jurists such as Portalis, Pothier, Tronchet and the like in the corridor behind Amphi II of the Faculté de Droit to the cast-iron "Histoire de Paris" signs planted outside some of the buildings associated with the university, it's quite clear that the place is more than happy to capitalise on its history, as we shall see below.
The University Itself
Paris I has several main places around Paris, most of which are centred in the 5e Arrondissement but with a few farther afield. Here follows my thoughts on those buildings of which I have had experience.
The Faculté de Droit. Located at 12, place du Panthéon on the corner of that street and the Rue Soufflot, this is where the main administration is located and is shared with Paris II. The building itself, to my mind, reflects a certain je ne sais quoi about the university in general; from the front it has the lovely sandstone portico with "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" engraved above it and the Cour d'Honneur, along with several large amphis and fairly well equipped classrooms, yet from the back entrance which opens onto the Rue Cujas it looks like a mildly dilapidated high school in a way and has posters for a rightist student organisation partly ripped off and with "FACHOS" scrawled over them. Which, in turn, have been overlaid with further posters which also have been defaced and so on. As a law student, 'tis here where the majority of my classes take place and it's also conveniently located just 90 seconds' walk from several pavement cafés which are ideal for hanging out between lectures (see the section on Cujas below for why students do this rather than something more productive.)
The Sorbonne itself. Another lovely looking building from the outside, but from the inside it resembles an anthill. Students and enseignants - not just from Paris I but also from Paris IV and V, with which this place is shared - scurry every which way holding piles of thick books held just so to give the impression of how hard-working they are, and a dearth of windows in said corridors doesn't really help too much. The classrooms and amphis themselves are suitably nice though; I'm a particular fan of the Amphi Lefebvre which has wooden panelled fittings and forms with that lived in feel to them and, in a concession to modernity, two wonky power points and a microphone system that the professors keep forgetting to use.
Centre Pierre Mendes-France. I've only been to this place, which is to be found at 90, rue de Tolbiac, once and that was to enrol at the start of the year and for me that's quite enough. The building resembles a Stalinist Lego set and the inexplicable pebble-dashed lumps of concrete on the way to the front entrance from the street don't add to this. On the inside it looks just as grim, often with ancient posters advertising far-Left political rallies adorning the exposed steel girders. Which is understandable; if I had to come here regularly I'd demand a revolution. It's also inconveniently far from any metro or bus lines which pass through the Latin Quarter.
Centre Réné Cassin. Found on the Rue Hippolyte in the 13e Arrondissement, this building is a general universitary building pretty much which is also pretty bland to look at. It does, however, have an amphi which is large enough to seat not only us folks on the "maitrîse intégrée" but also all the non-international students in two separate years, just about. Unfortunately it's inconveniently far from bus and metro stops and this means a distinct heel-and-toe to get there and this means getting up even earlier than you would normally to get there for 8am. I also believe that this place, with its large amphis (well, larger than those up the Faculté) is where first- and second-year classes take place.
Bibliothèque Cujas. On the Rue Cujas near the Faculté de Droit, this library is a sweatshop and aptly named as well, in a way - QUEUE-jas. It's a law library which, at all hours of the day, is full of students, both from Paris I and Paris II, cramming for whatever they have to cram for. I personally try to avoid the place unless what I'm after is nowhere else, mainly because it's such a rigmarole to find anything. One must first requisition the book, periodical, or whatever one's after then take a seat while someone goes and finds it for you. It generally takes quite a time to do all this, especially in the run-up to exams and this is why students hang about in bistrots so much, I suspect, because by the time they've finally got a seat and a book open in front of them it's time to be elsewhere. Also, with academic journals being available online more and more, less law-specialist libraries with computer access may have subscription to sites hosting them and printing facilities. For those people living on the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, the Maison Internationale has a library with access to those things online and a healthy selection of legal books. Then there's the Bibliothèque Nationale which has literally everything, even if it's a bit out of one's way...
Bibliothèque St-Genevieve. This is more of a general library and as such I haven't really seen much of it, and with the huge queues outside - bigger than Cujas at times - I'm not sure I'll be able to. Reports from those of us who have been there, though, are not particularly favourable.
French universities are a mass affair - anybody with a baccalauréat can go and sign up to a university to study a subject of their choosing. As a result, in the first two years or so, Paris I is full to bursting and, in the words of E2 user Helen4Morrissey, one should be prepared to "become a very long number rather than a name."
To give this some perspective, let's put it like this. In her book "French Legal Method," Eva Steiner writes in the chapter on legal education in France:
"Whereas a large law department in England consists of approximately 1,000 students, this figure represents roughly the first year intake of a small law school. In larger law departments, such as the law faculties of the Universities of Paris, nearly 3,000 students are recruited annually at first-year level."
Of course, with Paris I being rather prestigious and more than a little élitist (though not as much as Assas), several of these will be the ever-present husband hunters that have consistently taken my mind off trying to follow Prof. Christine Lazerges' lecture on penal law while painting their nails or otherwise preening themselves. It is, though, a lot less of a marriage farm than Assas, according to certain Englanders I know who are on the maitrîse intégrée at that institution. Those people, as well as being fucking hardcore for picking that course, compared to which Paris I's maitrîse intégrée is a bit of a soft touch, also mention that their MRS degree candidates are an order of magnitude more obvious than ours, but not having been there I can't verify this. If it's any consolation, generally over 50% of students at Paris I fail and crash out in the first year. As we shall see a bit later, this huge student roll is one of the main forces behind the various peculiarities that Paris I undergoes.
Assessment differs from discipline to discipline, but generally involves a healthy dose of le contrôle continu or continuous assessment with a general participation mark in each subject determined by one's assiduity, participation, and general effort put into one's travaux dirigés (half tutorial, half supervision, all obligatory) counting just as much as the examination in that subject. Those noders who have undergone university education in France will be familiar with this method, it's used all over, but each subject weights different aspects of le contrôle continu differently and dependant on the vagaries of the professors.
Sport is not done through the university but through various external organisations. It can, though, garner you a bonification of an extra half a point added to your average if you keep it up for the entire year but this cannot be used to bring you above the pass mark for the year.
A Personal Perspective
I'll tell you this for free - if you know nobody else who's going when you go there, you're going to be very, very, very, very, lonely indeed. It is now December and I've been in Paris for just under three months now and still know nobody properly who isn't one of my fellow Anglo-French students who I knew from beforehand, and a few people who I've spoken to at leisure in my place on the Cité Universitaire. Student organisations exist but, from what I've seen of them, are primarily formed from higher-year students. Socialising in the lower years is basically defined by who sits next to you in the amphis while one awaits the arrival of the Prof. Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to socialise with some of the students of the first two years, with their Macbook Pros and Prada handbags that Mummy & Daddy bought them and their designer sneering at anything that's not well-heeled, and thankfully they don't want to socialise with me (too English, too devoid of fat pension fund) - stereotypical "peasants begin at the Périphérique" Parisians, in a way. The maitrîse intégrée types of all nationalities, though, are a lot more down to earth and a lot less superficial and much more motivated to go there to get qualified rather than to spend their parents' money. With one exception, but I'll tell you about her elsewhere.
Despite it seeming a bit, well, churlish, we really ought to mention the administration. They turn things into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Getting one's student card is a rigmarole in itself, especially if you're an international student and not required to pay to enrol. Then once you're enrolled administratively you have to enrol again pedagogically which, basically, involves more queueing and wrangling with people. Though to be fair, with a spot of patience you can get through all this no problem really. The administration's general relationship with you, the student, ranges from apathetic to irritable.
It's also worth mentioning that due to the enormous numbers of students on the course, especially in the lower years, as we've seen above, it's not uncommon for the équipe pédagogique (teaching squad, if you will, even if that makes them sound like some sort of pro wrestling team) to try to discourage people from keeping on the course until at least the end of the licence (3rd year.) Not only will the professors deliberately assume the personae of crashing bores in some subjects - I have one in Constitutional law who, despite being an extremely clever and interesting person in real life (who apparently has another job to do with the Conseil Constitutionnel), lectures simply by reading from the very staid, very turgid book he wrote on it and, every so often, leaps up to expound on something totally brilliant he just thought of before settling back down again and re-commencing book-reading (and he NEVER uses the microphone) - but chargés de TD are also loath to give you good marks near the beginning of the term. Very few of us on the Anglo-French course have scored particularly well on any essay or interrogation anyone's set us, including the French people on it and, according to people in the fourth (maitrîse) year, this happened to them and to the year before them, and so on.
It's a good university. Like the place, I do. In spite of its little peculiarities and my seemingly incessant griping above, which are probably due to the very English tint I'm seeing it all through. So the degrees it gives aren't quite as prestigious as, say, Assas or the grandes écoles, it's still fairly well respected both in France and abroad. It must be stressed, though, that this writeup is based on comparatively limited experience and will be subject to change according to the vagaries of the future. It's also rather centred on the double-nationality course to which I'm enrolled, and as such I cannot really say much about student life on other courses, postgraduate stuff, or similar too authoritatively.