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When it comes to expressing your thoughts in French, there’s nothing better than the essay.
It is, after all, the favorite form of such famed French thinkers as Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Houellebecq and Simone de Beauvoir.
But writing an essay in French is not the same as those typical 5-paragraph essays you’ve probably written in English.
In fact, there’s a whole other logic that has to be used to ensure that your essay meets French format standards and structure. It’s not merely writing your ideas in another language.
And that’s because the French use Cartesian logic, developed by René Descartes, which requires a writer to begin with what is known and then lead the reader through to the logical conclusion: a paragraph that contains the thesis.
Sound intriguing? The French essay will soon have no secrets from you!
We’ve outlined the four most common types of essays in French, ranked from easiest to most difficult, to help you get to know this concept better. Even if you’re not headed to a French high school or university, it’s still pretty interesting to learn about another culture’s basic essay!
Must-have French Phrases for Writing Essays
Before we get to the four types of essays, here are a few French phrases that will be especially helpful as you delve into essay-writing in French:
Introductory phrases, which help you present new ideas.
- tout d’abord– firstly
- premièrement– firstly
Connecting phrases, which help you connect ideas and sections.
- et – and
- de plus – in addition
- également – also
- ensuite – next
- deuxièmement– secondly
- or – so
- ainsi que – as well as
- lorsque– when, while
Contrasting phrases, which help you juxtapose two ideas.
- en revanche– on the other hand
- pourtant – however
- néanmoins– meanwhile, however
Concluding phrases, which help you to introduce your conclusion.
- enfin– finally
- finalement– finally
- pour conclure – to conclude
- en conclusion – in conclusion
4 Types of French Essays and How to Write Them
1. Text Summary (Synthèse de texte)
The text summary or synthèse de texte is one of the easiest French writing exercises to get a handle on. It essentially involves reading a text and then summarizing it in an established number of words, while repeating no phrases that are in the original text. No analysis is called for.
A synthèse de texte should follow the same format as the text that is being synthesized. The arguments should be presented in the same way, and no major element of the original text should be left out of the synthèse.
Here is a great guide to writing a successful synthèse de texte, written for French speakers.
The text summary is a great exercise for exploring the following French language elements:
- Synonyms, as you will need to find other words to describe what is said in the original text.
- Nominalization, which involves turning verbs into nouns and generally cuts down on word count.
- Vocabulary, as the knowledge of more exact terms will allow you to avoid periphrases and cut down on word count.
While beginners may wish to work with only one text, advanced learners can synthesize as many as three texts in one text summary. The concours exam for entry into the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris calls for a 300-word synthesis of three texts, ranging from 750 to 1500 words, with a tolerance of more or less 10 percent.
Since a text summary is simple in its essence, it’s a great writing exercise that can accompany you through your entire learning process.
2. Text Commentary (Commentaire de texte)
A text commentary or commentaire de texteis the first writing exercise where the student is asked to present analysis of the materials at hand, not just a summary.
That said, a commentaire de texte is not a reaction piece. It involves a very delicate balance of summary and opinion, the latter of which must be presented as impersonally as possible. This can be done either by using the third person (on) or the general first person plural (nous). The singular first person (je) should never be used in a commentaire de texte.
A commentaire de texte should be written in three parts:
- An introduction, where the text is presented.
- An argument, where the text is analyzed.
- A conclusion, where the analysis is summarized and elevated.
Here is a handy guide to writing a successful commentaire de texte, written for French speakers.
Unlike with the synthesis, you will not be able to address all elements of a text in a commentary. You should not summarize the text in a commentary, at least not for the sake of summarizing. Every element of the text that you speak about in your commentary must be analyzed.
To successfully analyze a text, you will need to brush up on your figurative language. Here are some great resources to get you started:
- This guide, intended for high school students preparing for the BAC—the exam all French high school students take, which they’re required to pass to go to university—is great for learning how to integrate figurative language into your commentaries.
3. Dialectic Dissertation (Thèse, Antithèse, Synthèse)
The French answer to the 5-paragraph essay is known as the dissertation. Like the American 5-paragraph essay, it has an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The stream of logic, however, is distinct.
There are actually two kinds of dissertation, each of which has its own rules.
The first form of dissertation is the dialectic dissertation, better known as thèse, antithèse, synthèse. In this form, there are actually only two body paragraphs. After the introduction, a thesis is posited. Following the thesis, its opposite, the antithesis, is explored (and hopefully, debunked). The final paragraph, what we know as the conclusion, is the synthesis, which addresses the strengths of the thesis, the strengths and weaknesses of the antithesis, and concludes with the reasons why the original thesis is correct.
For example, imagine that the question was, “Are computers useful to the development of the human brain?” You could begin with a section showing the ways in which computers are useful for the progression of our common intelligence—doing long calculations, creating in-depth models, etc.
Then you would delve into the problems that computers pose to human intelligence, citing examples of the ways in which spelling proficiency has decreased since the invention of spell check, for example. Finally you would synthesize this information and conclude that the “pro” outweighs the “con.”
The key to success with this format is developing an outline before writing. The thesis must be established, with examples, and the antithesis must be supported as well. When all of the information has been organized in the outline, the writing can begin, supported by the tools you have learned from your mastery of the synthesis and commentary.
Here are a few tools to help you get writing:
4. Progressive Dissertation (Plan progressif)
The progressive dissertation is a slightly less common, but no less useful, than the first form.
The progressive form basically consists of examining an idea via multiple points of view—a sort of deepening of the understanding of the notion, starting with a superficial perspective and ending with a deep and profound analysis.
If the dialectic dissertation is like a scale, weighing pros and cons of an idea, the progressive dissertation is like peeling an onion, uncovering more and more layers as you get to the deeper crux of the idea.
Concretely, this means that you will generally follow this layout:
- A first, elementary exploration of the idea.
- A second, more philosophical exploration of the idea.
- A third, more transcendent exploration of the idea.
This format for the dissertation is more commonly used for essays that are written in response to a philosophical question, for example, “What is a person?” or “What is justice?”
Let’s say the question were, “What is war?” In the first part, you would explore dictionary definitions—a basic idea of war, i.e. an armed conflict between two parties, usually nations. You could give examples that back up this definition, and you could narrow down the definition of the subject as much as needed. For example, you might want to make mention that not all conflicts are wars, or you might want to explore whether the “War on Terror” is a war.
In the second part, you would explore a more philosophical look at the topic, using a definition that you provide. You first explain how you plan to analyze the subject, and then you do so. In French, this is known as poser une problématique (establishing a thesis question), and it usually is done by first writing out a question and then exploring it using examples: “Is war a reflection of the base predilection of humans for violence?”
In the third part, you will take a step back and explore this question from a distance, taking the time to construct a natural conclusion and answer for the question.
This form may not be as useful in as many cases as the first type of essay, but it’s a good form to learn, particularly for those interested in philosophy.
Here are a few resources to help you with your progressive dissertation:
As you progress in French and become more and more comfortable with writing, try your hand at each of these types of writing exercises, and even with other forms of the dissertation. You’ll soon be a pro at everything from a synthèse de texte to a dissertation!
And One More Thing…
Of course, French is a lot more than writing essays.
To cover all your other language bases, there’s always FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks.
Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
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My children won’t learn French. If their school tries to force the issue, I’ll fight tooth and nail. There’ll be the mother of all Agincourts before I let it happen.
It’s not that I have any problem with the language, even though it has too many vowels and you have to say 99 as ‘four-twenty-ten-nine’, making it impossible (I imagine) to sing that song about red balloons.
It’s just that I want my children to be successful, and learning French makes no business sense. There’s a moral issue too, but first the business: no English person moves to France to hatch a business plan these days. They might go there for the lifestyle, or the wine, or to live out their years. But nobody goes there to succeed. My nephew, who recently left school in Brittany, had modest ambitions to be a shop assistant, but found he needed a three-year accreditation in retail. He signed up to be a tour guide, but was required to take a two-year course in pointing at battlements. You cannot lead even the most unambitious life in France without sitting an exam for it. There’s not much incentive to do anything for yourself, either: even if you remain insufficiently prosperous to stay clear of the 75 per cent tax rate, every self-starter who sells their business after ten years owes the state 60 per cent capital gains tax on any profit. Quebec has launched a programme to lure 50,000 French entrepreneurs to its shores, which is a bit like deciding to save 50,000 black rhinos. Too late, I reckon.
None of this makes France unworthy of visiting, of course. France is lovely, and best enjoyed if you can hire a caravan and sit in cafés and buy baguettes. But for these I recommend a phrasebook, rather than six years of verb conjugation.
Of course, it’s not all about France. People point out to me that much of the world — 15 per cent of its land area, no less — is Francophone. Yes, I say, and just look at the state of most of it. Look at Ivory Coast and Chad and Mali and the two Congos and — right now — the Central African Republic. Much of Africa is looking up these days, but these particular countries are irretrievably buggered. And the reason they’re buggered is intimately connected to the fact that they speak French.
Organisation internationale de la Francophonie is an association of countries that ‘speak French, or that sign up to French values’. They speak French because 100 years ago they had no choice, and they sign up to French values because there’s business to be done by doing so. The most recent addition is Qatar, a country where only 1 per cent of the population speaks any French, following the Gulf state’s agreement to put €300 million into French enterprise. At the Francophone summit in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, last year, President Hollande said, ‘Speaking French means speaking the language of human rights. The Rights of Man were written in French.’ Beyond the chance of filling the coffers, it is a belief central to La Francophonie that the language and the culture are indissoluble: if you speak French, you will think French. Your sympathies will bend perforce towards France.
Today if you scratch a poor Francophone country you’ll find France. Unlike Britain, France never really left Africa. An African advisory unit, the Cellule Africaine, has remained in the Élysée Palace since France’s African empire was officially dissolved, capable of shoring up or knocking over rulers as required. Strong bonds of cooperation with Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, the Bongo regime in Gabon and Mobutu in the former Belgian Congo have kept those countries reliant on French aid and assistance. France has intervened militarily in Africa 30 times since granting its colonies independence; many more times it has backed rebel groups or used intrigue and leverage to install or remove regimes. French special forces helped bring down the Gbagbo regime in Ivory Coast in 2010. Last year the French were in Mali; now they’re in the Central African Republic, where 38 years ago France helped install the ‘African Napoleon’, Bokassa I, removing him three years later when his penchant for cutting people’s ears off and killing schoolchildren became an embarrassment. France maintains a permanent and active presence of 5,000 troops across the most fractured, underdeveloped and politically fragile part of the continent.
Over there, you get a lot of bang for 5,000 men. Africa, according to former President Giscard d’Estaing, remains ‘the sole continent where France could still, with 500 men, change the course of history’. And so it has. But then, Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil. I’ve no doubt that France will save some lives in CAR. But in 30 full-scale military adventures France has not yet installed one worthwhile government nor made the slightest improvement to the average African’s quality of life.
In return for its muscle, France’s nuclear power stations draw half of their uranium from Niger, and France exports oil from Gabon, where it has just given its blessing to a dynastic succession of power. After the US, France is the second largest investor in Equatorial Guinea, a Francophonie member despite its state language being Spanish. It’s a nation consistently ranked among the ‘worst of the worst’ in an annual survey of political and civil rights abuses carried out by the monitor group Freedom House. Every country does business with horrible regimes, of course. What’s amusing is that the President, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, received an ‘Order of Francophonie and Dialogue of Cultures Award’ from La Francophonie a year after police in Paris raided his son’s house, confiscating 11 of his luxury cars. They also found plans to build a yacht costing the same as Equatorial Guinea’s entire health and education budget.
Of course it’s wrong to disdain the French language — and yes, it is a beautiful language — just because so many people use it to say things like ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘I wish we could have an election’ and ‘I’m taking my money to Belgium’. Plenty of dark plans have been hatched in English, after all: the idea of seizing control of Equatorial Guinea by Mark Thatcher’s friends sticks in the mind. My problem with French is that it’s still at war with us.
In editorials that defend Hollande’s faltering economic model, Libération continually attacks the alternative: clunking, brutal Anglo-Saxon laissez-faire. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is still a shorthand in French government for anything antithetical to accepted French practice. The historian Martin Meredith attributes this to ‘Fashoda Syndrome’, Kitchener’s rebuff to French colonial expansion that so infuriated Charles de Gaulle that he set up the Cellule Africaine.
In 1990 the CA was headed by Jean–Christophe Mitterrand, son of President François. Meredith recounts how, when a Tutsi rebel army equipped by Uganda approached Rwanda in October 1990, ‘it fitted directly into the French notion of an Anglo-Saxon plot… With little hesitation, President Mitterrand, a personal friend of [the Hutu president] Habyarimana, authorised the despatch of French troops to Rwanda.’
Over the next year, French forces oversaw the expansion of the Hutu armed forces from 9,000 to 28,000 men and set up arms deals that helped the regime buy $100 million worth of arms from Egypt and South Africa, despite mounting evidence that they were preparing for genocide. Central to this was the French mercenary Paul Barril, who, even once the genocide had begun in earnest, signed a contract of assistance with the interim Rwandan government that was carrying out the butchery. French involvement in Rwanda is recounted in the memoirs of UN commander Roméo Dallaire, who helplessly watched French aircraft delivering arms to the genocidaires. French soldiers, believing they had been sent to prevent an invasion by the Tutsi rebel army, were horrified to find themselves protecting mass-murderers and required by their government to set up a safety zone which gave the fleeing genocidaires safe passage into Zaire.
Linda Melvern, whose account of the genocide, Conspiracy To Murder, is one of the most comprehensive, drily concludes, ‘The French policy seemed to be based on the fact that Rwanda was at a crossroads between Anglophone and Francophone Africa.’
Of course, I can’t do anything about all this beastliness and intrigue far away. None of us can. These days we’re even told that aid is futile. But for the sake of doing something futile yet decisive, I will insist that my children don’t learn French. Call it solidarity with Rwanda, where the new government has embarked on a massive campaign to make English the language of government and commerce. They even joined the Commonwealth in 2009. I’m sad, of course, that my children will miss a field trip to Saint-Malo and the ability to watch Yves Montand films without subtitles. It’s just that, in the great marketplace of language, French looks such an unattractive investment. German is going places. Mandarin will be indispensable. Spanish has few irregular verbs and is spoken in a multitude of fascinating countries with positive economic outlooks.
Despite all this I do maintain a liking for French people, French cynicism and French satire. It was an article in Charlie Hebdo (France’s version of Private Eye) in 2009 that led to charges against Barril being filed at the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris. Pending the outcome of the investigation, Barril continues to work as advisor to the government of Qatar, the latest member of an organisation which promotes the French language along with (according to Mr Hollande) ‘democracy, human rights, pluralism, respect for freedom of expression, and the assertion that everyone should be able to choose their leaders’.
Actually, forget what I said about the French and irony.