Thousands of disgruntled French teenagers have signed a petition claiming that a question about Ian McEwan’s Atonement in their baccalaureate English paper was “impossible” and calling on the education minister to instruct examiners not to count the marks, or lack thereof.
Pupils were instructed to read a passage from Atonement and complete two questions about how a character copes with being accused of rape. Arthur, a 17-year-old French student behind the petition, told BFMTV: “Many people didn’t understand the word ‘coping’; it’s not a very common word.”
The petition complained: “The majority of students in the bac were not able to answer question M because they found it too difficult, with words only someone bilingual or with an excellent level in English could answer.
“It is totally inadmissible to propose a bac subject with incomprehensible questions that are impossible to answer.”
Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001 and is on Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. The Observer listed it as one of the 100 greatest novels ever written.
Complaining about the bac, which is taken at the end of high school, has become almost a rite of passage for French youngsters, even though almost nine out of 10 pass.
Students who sat the French (language and literature) paper this year complained that they thought the “tiger” referred to in Tigre Bleu de l’Euphrate – a play by Laurent Gaudé, who won the Goncourt prize in 2004 – was an animal, when in fact it refers to a river.
There have also been complaints about the English question on the baccalauréat 2015 en France Facebook page. But others students have counter-attacked, suggesting those who could not answer the question should stop moaning.
Hugo Travers, 18, said on Twitter that it was lamentable and “totally wrong” to sign a petition because the question seemed too hard. Besides, Travers pointed out, the petition was “full of errors” in French.
A video to support the petition was described as risible by many students. One pointed out that “coping” was hardly in the same league of difficult English words as “comeuppance”.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. If you don’t know what ‘coping with’ means that’s your problem. Go revise your pathetic English instead of whining like old goats,” wrote another student.