What is French about France?

  • The shops all close at 7 pm, with the exception of Carrefour Market (8:30 pm) and Carrefour City (10:30 pm). At least in my city.
  • The city is dead on Sundays—I’m not even half sure where everyone goes.

“Almost every shop is closed on Sundays as well, so don’t plan a visit to a city you’ve always dreamed of seeing on the day of rest, because they do rest. It’s the law. Only shops that sell food are legally allowed to remain open in France, although countless boutiques do flaunt the regulations. I wouldn’t count on it, though. If you are visiting during a Sunday, and will need anything at all from a store, I highly recommend buying it Saturday.”  Hours in France.

  • Students flock in mass to the train station on Fridays, in order to pass the weekend at home. It’s very hard to hang out with French students on the weekend unless they live in your city, so it’s nice to know other foreigners.
  • Nearly every meal is served in a minimum of three courses—appetizer, main course, and cheese/fruit/dessert.
  • New Year’s Eve is rarely spent at a bar but at a private party at a friend’s home.
  • Presents are exchanged and gifts opened on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
  • All the holidays revolve around food.
  • The country stops working in the month of August—don’t expect to get anything done yourself.
  • Sometimes it takes asking ten different individuals in order to find anything out, and sometimes even then you haven’t the faintest idea.
  • When first attending a French university, prepare to spend an entire day going to various buildings of the university in order to “register” as a student. And be prepared to not know what classes are offered, with which professor, at what time, and in what building, until often the day of, and the same goes for exams. Don’t expect to be notified if a teacher is absent. Try to have at least one well-informed friend in every class. Or get to know at least one faculty member. Don’t even attempt to have the grading system explained to you unless you need to “retake” your exams.
  • You must always watch your register of language (including tutoiement and vouvoiement), depending on who you are talking to—emails included.
  • Always say “Bonjour” upon entering a room, restaurant, or store, and always leave with “Merci, au revoir” or “Bonne journée, au revoir”—a “s’il vous plaît” when ordering something is nice but not required.
  • Carambars and crêpes and more cheeses and fine wines than you can count on two hands. And pastries, and desserts, and baguettes, and…
  • Tintin and Lucky Luke (Belgian) and Titeuf (Swiss) and Astérix and Obélix and (until recently) Gerard Depardieu and Johnny Hallyday and Audrey Tautou and Marillon Cotillard and Édith Piaf, Les Enfants du ParadisLes Intouchables, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Stendhal, Molière, Corneille, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, …
  • Don’t expect to get anything administrative-related accomplished before 9:30 am or after 4:00 pm. As a general rule, never expect someone to be in his or her office before 9:00 am.
  • The numerous Catch-22’s in France. Case in point: to get university housing, you need a French bank account, but to open a French bank account, you need housing.
  • Emails are seldom returned in a timely manner—the French take the separation of work and leisure very seriously, which extends to evenings, weekends (Sunday especially) and vacation days (notably winter and summer break)
  • French shops and attractions tend to be open in the mornings until noon, and many (if not most) close up to three hours for lunch. They typically reopen 2:30 or 3 pm. If you time it wrong, you could arrive at a museum just in time to wait for three grueling hours.
  • In those hours, the restaurants and cafés come alive. If you don’t catch lunch at lunchtime, you could go hungry for several hours (especially in smaller towns or even medium-sized cities). The French dinnertime is typically late, around 8 pm.
  • The French tend to go out to eat less often than Americans, especially in the evenings or on the weekends, which is primetime for most U.S. dinners out. On the other hand, most restaurants in the city center, especially near businesses, are packed at lunch hours, as the locals take advantage of the “plat du jour” and their two-hour lunch breaks.
  • The French love their system of concours, national government-entry exams for admission into élite schools and the various types of fonctionnaire (civil servant) jobs. There is a whole “prépa” culture that prepares for the Grandes Écoles such as the École Normale Supérieure and the École Polytechnique. Most government bigwigs and Parisian highbrows issue from these schools.
  • To get a job in France, they expect you to have a degree for everything—a degree to prove your competency at a foreign language (CLES 2), your ability to use basic computer skills (C2i2e), your general first aid (PSC1), your ability to work with children (BAFA) or adults (BAFD), to work in a professional field (CAP), to work in commerce or management (BTS), to become a teacher (CAPES or l’Aggrégation), to work in a technical field (DUT), etc. Not to mention your standard undergraduate (L1-L2-L3) or Masters (M1-M2) or Doctorate degrees.
  • The French love acronyms and other jargon known as “sigles”.
  • Almost everyone smokes in France. And I am not exaggerating. I must be the only person half the time not to take a “pause cigarette” in order to “fumer une clope” and I am often asked on the street, “vous avez du feu?” Luckily for non-smokers, smoking is pretty much banned in all enclosed areas, such as bars or restaurants.
  • The French like to drink, but there isn’t quite the same “binge culture” that you find in the United States, as a result of the absence of “campus” fraternities or sororities or other such rites of initiation that involve young people and heavy drinking. Drinking is allowed since age sixteen, and most French have had a glass of wine on occasion with their meal from a much earlier age.  The French highly prize their wines and enjoy beer and hard alcohol. There is a local alcohol culture that accompanies each region of the country, with corresponding stereotypes.
  • Dogs are allowed pretty much everywhere, especially in cafés. Therefore, be forewarned about what naturally accompanies dogs—doggy doo on the sidewalks.
  • In older cities when it rains, the sewage literally stinks.
  • Older apartments often have terrible ventilation and rarely have elevators. You are lucky if your heating is fully functioning. Living conditions are much more cramped, even for those who can afford good housing. Not everyone is a homeowner and few people are blessed with a front or back yard or a patch of grass if they live in a city.
  • You typically have to pay to go to the bathroom, unless you are a paying customer at a restaurant.  Even McDonalds isn’t a “freebie.”
  • Unless you are born French or in a French-speaking country, you will never speak perfect French. Whether by your accent or an out of context use of vocabulary, you will give yourself away. And once they discover you’re an American, they will proceed to talk to you about Obama (adored) or Bush (despised) or about American politics in general. Try to brush up your vocabulary for such situations (explaining the Electoral College is hard enough in English).
  • You don’t need to tip as it is already included in the bill—although many places take advantage of tourist ignorance. And whatever price listed on the price tag is how much you will actually have to pay—there’s no hidden “sales tax” that magically appears at the counter, it’s already been factored in advance and is the same around the entire country.
  • You basically pay half your salary in taxes, BUT parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance, or save for college.
  • Sex is absolutely not taboo—from high school age onwards, most people are expected to be having sex and talking about having sex, and even parents are fully aware of their adolescent children’s having sex—as a result, the pill is widespread and used.
  • Fewer French are getting married than ever before, and cohabitation is commonplace, especially once you are out of school (most French students live at home with their parents, as university campuses lack quality housing and a “campus” environment)—as a result, most marriages I see at the town hall across from my street are of the Arab-French population, amongst each other.
  • Almost all French children, at least those fortunate enough to get accepted, go to state-run day cares called “la crèche”: not only are these appreciated, but women often go back to work within months of giving birth and are not viewed as “bad mothers.”
  • You are never ever forgiven for getting fat. Having a baby is not an excuse, but rather, should be extra motivation to get back in shape to regain your sex appeal. No matter what age.
  • Both men and women dress well. While the “jock” look is still acceptable, most jogging pants or sweatshirts are worn only to and from athletic activity. Both genders spend a lot of money on clothes and are expected to look good at all times. Slovenly dressing is looked down upon, as if you are lacking self-esteem. There is no college culture that permits wearing pyjamas or sweatpants to class. Students can and do often dress as if going to a job interview every day of class. The French, to a lesser degree than the Swiss but all the same, frequently “repeat” outfits two or three days in a row, provided it is still clean and doesn’t smell.
  • The French take their laïcité (separation of Church and State) incredibly seriously—all talk or manifestation of one’s religion in a public setting, such as school, is absolutely forbidden, with the most extreme case being the prohibition of all religious articles in a public school including the Cross, the Jewish kippa/yarmulke and the Muslim head scarf.
  • For some reason, the French are the second worst at foreign languages in Europe, coming just ahead of England in the most recent study. I blame the strange emphases of school-run foreign language programs, but this also relates to national pride for speaking good French and a ferocious protection and support of their language abroad. And perhaps a “laissez-faire” attitude about the English language, after rivaling with England for the last several centuries as a cultural power in the region.
  • To graduate high school you have to pass the baccalauréat, which involves an exam in each subject, among which figure several oral exams. Like most grades in France, the results of those who pass are posted for all to see, often on a national level. In university, professors commonly email the entire class’s grades in one go, and you often only have one grade per class, which is usually a final exam or project. Hence the common occurrence of “make-up” exams or “redoing” your year. Each year is considered a separate degree to be earned independently of other years.
  • Make sure you are making eye contact with a driver when crossing the street at a diagonal-slashed cross walk.
  • The cross walk lights in France are both little men—the red one with his hands on his hips means “don’t cross” and the green man who appears to be walking means “cross.” In all cases look left then right then left and cross if no car appears to be hurtling at you.
  • It’s really hard to get your driver’s license in France. You have to be at least 18, go through a six-month program of driver’s ed, and pass a rigorous exam. After three failed attempts you have to repass driver’s ed. As a result, many people, especially youths, use public transportation or walk.
  • The French love to protest and go on strike. Within a month’s period, I’ve already witnessed two protests down the center of my city. Strikes of any form of transportation are incredibly annoying and likely to happen 1) at a moment’s notice or 2) on a major holiday. Be forewarned.
  • Getting a coffee at one of fifteen local cafés is more than just a social ritual—it’s a way of living.
  • La préfecture is the innermost circle of hell.  L’OFII is not far behind.

A fellow American Expat in Amiens wanted me to add this comment:

“I have one to add: dinner, even when just pizza at a friend’s house, is preceded by “l’apéro.” this is not optional. Buy peanuts or chips, and an alcoholic beverage of some kind on hand. You may think you have planned a dinner party, but even at thanksgiving, you will be asked “what about l’apéro?” (Check out Fliss’s blog here)

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, France | Tags: , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “What is French about France?

  1. Just awesome!

  2. Shannon

    Crazy how much of these things I’ve observed in my dual-citizen boyfriend! Especially the way meals are a central thing, including ending with something sweet and preferring to eat a large lunch instead of dinner. His family opened presents on Christmas Eve as well, and I watched L’Intouchables with them! Funny.

    • It seems that culture is a thing that crosses national boundaries. I can’t wait to meet him at some point! Hopefully you two can come over here :)

  3. Great post Colleen! Very funny and informative!

  4. Wow it’s so detailed!! Regarding tutoiement… I was so used to talking to kids, that at the cash register, I told the lady “attends” while searching for change… oh man I was glared upon for that one! “er.. pardon, attendez…”

    • I sometimes start with the “tu” and then catch myself, when I’m with teachers or when I’m with the high school students I tutor in English. They usually don’t make any comment since I didn’t actually “tutoie” them. When I was 18, I definitely “tutoiéd” my super strict French teacher but she was really nice and didn’t say anything. The entire class looked at me though and started whispering… :p

  5. So many interesting points here, Colleen. I was struck by so many. I’ve never been to France but it really sounds like a fascinating place. The dog doo bit was funny; you have to read the Sedaris story I mentioned; I’m drawing a blank on the title right now but I’ll try to dig it up. Thanks for the interesting post.

    • I’ll try to look it up myself. There has been quite a history of American expats living in France which I’m personally interested in researching. Thanks for the nice note!

  6. dadoushkasworld

    Tu as fait une bonne description,ça prête réellement à sourire…l’apéro est dit “important” en fait ça dépend réellement en général lorsqu’on est en famille c’est plus l’entrée (salade,légumes, soupe…) et c’est vrai qu’avoir un dessert c’est super important!

    Sinon une différence culturelle que j’ai remarqué c’est la bise…ici on se “tape” automatiquement la bise alors que dans d’autres pays pas du tout! Une Italienne m’a un jour serré la main et une Australienne m’a dit bonjour seulement avec la parole et j’ai trouvé ça vraiment bizarre…

    M’enfin après tout ce que tu as énoncé c’est peut etre moi qui le suis!

    • Oui j’ai remarqué que ça change selon si l’on est dans un groupe d’amis ou en famille, mais en tout cas ce sont plusieurs “étapes” du repas qui sont importants, que ça soit l’apéro, l’entrée et bien sûr le dessert!

      J’ai seulement eu l’expérience de la bise en France et en Suisse (on fait 3 fois au lieu de 2 ou 4!) donc je peux pas encore te dire par rapport en Italie, mais je saurai bientôt comment ça se passe. Généralement aux États-Unis on serre la main si c’est plus formel, on se fait des câlins si on est entre amis et on fait signe de la main à un grand groupe en quittant… Et il faut toujours dire bonjour et au revoir (de plusieurs façons plus ou moins décontractées) même si on ne touche pas du tout! :)

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