Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

How you punish a thief, in Plato, depends on the nature of the theft – and always on the status of the thief. The thing that’s stolen is also an issue. In the Laws a slave who steals ‘an object of no great value’ should be soundly beaten. But if a free man steals the same object, he should repay the owner ten times its value. What’s ten times ‘no great value’? Remove the ‘great’ and you arrive at zero. Put it back and you have a dispute on your hands. And what if someone steals a piece of public property? In the Laws, penalties for slaves and foreigners would have to be weighed up carefully, but if the culprit is a citizen, the automatic penalty is death.

No one knows whether it was a French citizen, a foreigner or a slave who mugged a passer-by in Marseille in June 2012 and took off with her bag. But the contents were clearly an object of public interest – public property even. We don’t know the victim’s name but we do know she was a philosophy examiner and that her bag contained the papers of 34 lycée pupils who’d just sat the exam – philosophy is compulsory for students who struggle through the baccalauréat général. Among the options was an essay question: ‘Is the only purpose of work to make oneself useful?’ One of the 34, interviewed on TV, had chosen to answer this. By then the Ministry of Education had decided that the unlucky students whose papers were lost would have to resit the exam. Which only went to show, she reckoned, that work was no use at all.

And so to 2013: with this year’s bac in full swing a fresh story about stolen exam papers broke on 25 June. The place: Marseille. The circumstances: another examiner mugged in the street. Impressed by the resemblances to 2012 I looked over the philosophy syllabus to see if ideas about chance and frequency crop up anywhere. Not this year. How about papers from earlier years, in metropolitan France or one of many Francophone outposts? Nothing much there, I discovered, even in French Polynesia and Pondicherry. (In 2011 candidates in Pondicherry were offered a slab of Bergson from The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics to get their heads around.)

It’s always possible philosophy examiners in the education authority of Aix-Marseille gather for their pre-match briefing in a rough part of town. Maybe a person leaving the building with a totebag full of student commentaries on St Anselm – one of this year’s tougher options – is asking for trouble. Marseille has moved on since Aristotle praised it as a stable, fair-to-middling Greek colony run by benign oligarchs: there’s been a brisk trade in drugs for half a century and nowadays dealers in the city can earn 100,000 euros a month, a Marseille cop told the New York Times last year.

But the street value of a student’s philosophy paper, wrenched from the clutches of a hapless examiner? Four times as many papers were stolen this time. Does that suggest growing demand? Is there a cartel of semi-criminal epistemologists – gnarled recluses in dark Marseillais apartments with ivy on the shutters – who pay hard cash to read the candidates’ pitiful efforts and laugh the kind of crazy laughter that would still be echoing, in the movie I already foresee, when they cram the papers into the cooker and set the dial to ‘a posteriori: fan-assisted’. This is the recommended oven setting for the dish you know you’ve just eaten and recognised from experience.

There are three strands of the bac général (the purely academic route) at lycée: science, literature, economic and social science. Each strand has a different philosophy paper. There are other papers still for students who opt for a ‘technical’ bac, having sheared away from the ‘general’ academic cursus into specialisms such as management, hostelry, applied arts, hairdressing and health. Philosophy is not just a dream topping for swots. It’s inscribed in the very notion of a rounded education and 665,000 candidates sat the paper this year. A few lycées are experimenting with a two-year philosophy course, but most lycéens hit the subject head-on in their last year of study. So, for example, a final-year student in economic and social science, who might be doing a foreign language, along with compulsory maths, history and geography, would have sat a four-hour philosophy examination at the beginning of a week in which, among other things, a five-hour paper in economics and three hours of maths were still to come. We’d have heard by now if the sinister epistemologists in Marseille were interested in those.

The philosophy paper consists of two essay questions and a text for commentary. Candidates choose any one of the three and it’s said that you’re less likely to lose the plot if you avoid the commentary, or explication de texte. A literature candidate will have many more areas to cover than a science candidate, and so for instance under the first general heading, ‘The Subject’, science students will have to know about ‘consciousness’, ‘the unconscious’ and ‘desire’, while bac L students will also have covered ‘perception’, ‘existence and time’, and autrui (‘others’). There are five general headings, each with a handful of subheadings. There’s also a daunting special issue of the magazine Philosophie on how to survive the exam. ‘Daunting’ because it includes several corrected mocks with comments in the margin like: ‘Don’t present man as a constitutive element of culture but as the product of a given culture that can serve as a model of emancipation.’ Mégane, the imaginary student in this case, got 9/20 for her essay on cultural relativism and must feel disappointed that the imaginary examiner wasn’t left bleeding on the pavement in Marseille as her paper was whisked away into the city of vice.

The bac is impressive but it has odd effects on candidates’ parents. In Paris in June the mother of a 19-year-old took her daughter’s place for an English paper hoping she wouldn’t be noticed, even though she was in her fifties. Some candidates for the bac are adults but this over-identified parent, whose English must be OK, seems to have gone for a full youth-impersonation by wearing Converses. Four out of twenty for a plausible grasp of metonymy. Though her daughter’s comrades said nothing – which is interesting in itself – the invigilator picked it up: this was not the individual who’d appeared under the same name a few days earlier to sit the philosophy paper. An elementary blunder on the mother’s part. She should have revised for the earlier exam (especially general heading No 3, ‘Reason and the Real’) and taken the trouble to sit it. Perhaps the daughter’s now impersonating maman in the workplace. A pair of sensible shoes from the Galeries Lafayette ought to do the trick. How else is she meant to get a job in a country with 26.5 per cent youth unemployment?