French Dissertation

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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.

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 dissertationLike 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. 

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In France, many schools and universities evaluate students on their capacity to write argumentative texts called 'dissertations.' These 1200-2000 word texts follow strict formal guidelines, which are often taken for granted at a University level. This method is quite different from the way professors evaluate their students in North-American or Anglo-Saxon Universities. Indeed, the French 'dissertation' (known as a variety of the 'argument driven essay' in English) should be distinguished from the dissertation in Anglo-Saxon countries, which refers to an entirely different exercise, part of a doctoral thesis.

In France, many schools and universities evaluate students on their capacity to write argumentative texts called 'dissertations.' These 1200-2000 word texts follow strict formal guidelines, which are often taken for granted at a University level. This method is quite different from the way professors evaluate their students in North-American or Anglo-Saxon Universities. Indeed, the French 'dissertation' (known as a variety of the 'argument driven essay' in English) should be distinguished from the dissertation in Anglo-Saxon countries, which refers to an entirely different exercise, part of a doctoral thesis. Foreign students may not be aware of some of the French guidelines, and may never even fully understand their subtleties during their short stay in France. For this reason, this article aims to explain – very briefly – what characterises an argument driven essay according to standards in France. Furthermore, we will try to determine which element is most characteristic of this type of essay.

Firstly, we will examine how the 'heart' of this type of essay is fuelled by one core question, which is referred to as 'problématique.' Secondly, we will approach the form of such essays, i.e. how they are organised. Thirdly and lastly, we will study how the introduction and conclusion parts are linked to the body of the text in a characteristic way.

In a first part, it is generally well known that essays are oriented, implicitly if not explicitly, by one core question, known in French as 'problématique.' In the case of the argument driven essay, the 'problématique' is a question which will fuel every subsequent argument of the essay. In this view, it can be argued that this interrogative element is perhaps the most important and characteristic element of this type of essay. This fundamental question should be stated at the beginning of the essay in order to allow the reader to gain a clear idea of the subject the writer has chosen to examine, and also to allow him to anticipate the subsequent articulations of the essay. In schools and Universities, such a subject is often given to the students by their teacher at the beginning of the exam, so that all students can be evaluated on the same theme. Such subjects can be declined in three types: firstly, a thematic type, which does not explicitly set a question, but rather states a general theme; this type of essay question incites the student to study and analyse a given subject in the essay. Here is an example of this first type of subject: “Bebop in Asia.” Secondly, an interrogative type, in which a question is explicitly advanced; this type of essay favours a discussion between the professor and the student. Here is an example of this second type of subject: “Can one still speak of a proletariat?” Thirdly and lastly, an implicit subject, where the student must relate two or more themes to one another. The student is expected to articulate each element of the question to one another, not separately. Here is an example of this third type of subject: “space and emptiness in Polish fiction.” After having received such a subject, the student is expected to elaborate a 'problématique,' which in a way represents the angle of approach of the essay. However, if the core question of the essay does have considerable importance in the case of the argument driven essay, there's more to this type of literary construction than one single question, as we shall now see.

In a second part, one must remember that each of the subsequent elements of the essay is usually directly related to this 'problématique,' and examines some of its complimentary dimensions. In this view, it can be argued that the form of the essay distinguishes the argument driven essay from other varieties of essays. In France, argument-driven essays are generally composed of three distinct argumentative parts, each consisting of one single paragraph, so that in the end, it should contain only five paragraphs with the introduction and conclusion (although sometimes the introduction alone can be divided into two paragraphs to better isolate the aforementioned 'problématique'). Typically, each part should contain one major argument – supported by three examples, or minor arguments – and each part is often articulated to the others through a dialectic logic in the attempt to account for the whole complexity of the subject in question. This means the first part will present a thesis, the second an antithesis and the third a synthesis. For example, if a student were to base his essay on a 'problématique' about corruption during the cold war, he could examine NATO members and allied countries in a first part, USSR countries and soviet allies in a second, and argumentatively compare how corruption exists in both sides in a third part. Furthermore, each of the three parts should ideally be of the same length; in some cases, the teacher may demand that each part contain between X and Y lines. Finally, each part should ideally be linked to one another with “linking phrases” which sum up the last paragraph and introduce the following one, in regards to the 'problématique.' This way, the reader will more easily be able to understand the writer's progression from one idea to another, and ultimately from introduction to conclusion. However, if the tripartite form of  the argument driven essay is indeed one of its key characteristics, this type of form must be coordinated by proper introductory and conclusive elements, as we shall now see.

In a third and final part, the introduction and conclusion of argument driven essays are important inasmuch as they provide an entrance and term to the subject. An essay would not be functional without them. In this view, in can be argued that the way one introduces and concludes an argument driven essay is essential. Both the introduction and conclusion should begin with general catch phrases which allow the reader either to enter the subject or take distance from it, accordingly. Regarding the introduction, the student is expected to locate the topic of the essay within the corresponding field of study. Subsequently, the way in which the student appropriates the subject, through the 'problématique,' is expected to be clearly indicated. Finally, the outline of the essay, including each of the three succeeding parts, should be briefly indicated at the very end of the introduction; this last element can sometimes be contained within its own little paragraph. Regarding the conclusion, the principle arguments of each part should be briefly recalled. The student is expected to conclude by providing an opening which may allow the reader to link the present essay with other subjects, still unstudied. Hence, if both the 'problématique' and tripartite form are essential to the argument driven essay, the introduction and conclusion are both essential in structuring the readers relationship with the text.

As a conclusion, after having studied the heart of the argumentative essay (its 'problématique'), its tripartite form and the functions of its introduction and conclusion paragraphs, we may perhaps have less difficulty in answering the question of how an argument-driven essay is constructed in France. As for determining which element is the most characteristic of this type of essay, we have observed that all of them are important in their own way. It has been observed that foreign students are often unaware of the exact particularities of the argument-driven essay in France (aka 'dissertation' in French) upon arriving in their examination rooms. This is very unfortunate, since not only will this hinder their final grades, but it will also hinder their access to culture in a larger sense. Indeed, many prominent authors of today still follow the tripartite form of the 'dissertation' when writing their articles (ex: André Green in various chapters of his book, The Work of the Negative). In an attempt to give a rough example of the French 'dissertation,' this very article – as the attentive reader will have observed – follows its typical treatment of subject and its tripartite form, albeit in very clumsy and imprecise manner. Hence, the reader may now grasp how the 'dissertation' in France is a complex argumentative exercise, linking together ideas, form and rhetoric. The student who is aware of this will undoubtedly be better disposed to succeed in his courses and even understand Latin culture in general. Indeed, the exercise of this type of argument-driven essay is deeply rooted in the history of Latin countries, and originates in the XVIIth century from the medieval disputos. The 'dissertation' in France was initially a philosophy exercise. From 1864 onwards, it extended itself to other subjects, such as literature, history, etc. and still exists to this day.

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