A government committee has recommended sweeping reforms to take education back to basics, stressing speech, writing, reading and arithmetic in the first three years of school.
But while the youngest focus on the 3Rs, older secondary students will specialise at once, instead of having a common curriculum in their first year at upper school.
The proposals will involve teachers working longer hours for more pay. They are designed to tackle the problem identified by a recent education ministry survey that children are moving from primary to lower secondary school with only "fragile" abilities in basic subjects.
The plans include lowering the school starting age from six to five and breaking the first 10 years of education into three and four-year cycles, with targets for each one.
Pupils would have to complete a cycle before being allowed to move on to the next one, increasing the number of repeated years.
Controversially, the committee has also advocated obligatory "international" English from the age of eight.
Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin welcomed the report but education minister Francois Fillon has given it a lukewarm reception and teachers are divided.
The committee, headed by Claude Thelot, a senior civil servant, was set up by Mr Raffarin in June 2003. It took evidence from hundreds of people and encouraged some 26,000 discussions nationwide attended by a million parents, teachers and other interested parties. Implicit in its recommendations, critics say, is a return to traditional methods such as dictations, drills and exercises.
In the first of the cycles children aged five to eight would focus on the basics skills. The second, for children aged eight to 13, would include "international communication English" and computer skills, and would be devoted to "deepening" knowledge.
The third, from 13 to 16, would introduce "diversification". In the final years of each cycle new subjects would be introduced.
The report's suggestions on English have been widely debated, not least because of the sensitivity in France about the dominant role of English in international affairs.
Some critics fear other important international languages - notably Spanish, Japanese and Chinese - may suffer. Others are afraid that children will be taught low-grade "airport English".
The government's response to the report, the result of an initiative launched by president Jacques Chirac in 2002, will be considered by the cabinet at the end of the year with any new measures coming into effect in 2006.
It would be up to the parliament and an independent authority to define the exact content of the common core curriculum.