An Overview of Traditions and Culture in France
By Barbara Diggs
French traditions and culture hold a special fascination for foreigners. Certain elements of the culture are world-famous, such as the deep regard the French have for excellent food and wine. Other parts are less well-known, and you’ll only discover it when you’ve made some horrible faux pas (mistake) at a dinner party. When you stay in France, whether for four days or four years, familiarizing yourself with its cultures and traditions will deepen your experience. Here’s a quick guide to set you on your way.
France is a country of 65 million people. The country is multiethnic and multicultural, but it’s illegal to keep statistics on different ethnicities, so the actual percentage of the population each group comprises is unknown. It’s estimated that 83%-88% of the population is Catholic, 2% Protestant, 5%-10% Muslim, 1% Jewish, 1% Buddhist, and less than 1% Sikh. Ethnic groups include: Bretons, Basques, North Africans, Africans, Eastern Europeans, Southeast Asians, and more.
France’s official name is “The Republic of France”. The State is headed by the President, who is elected by the people for a five-year term and is responsible for determining governmental policy. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and is responsible for implementing laws and policy and coordinating the actions of the government ministers.
In France, the vast majority of native citizens speak French. This fact causes many English-speaking foreigners much anxiety, as the French have a long-held and rather unfair reputation for not liking to speak English. In reality, plenty of French people, particularly in large cities such as Paris, speak English well and enjoy doing so. But, on the whole, French people dislike being addressed in English by foreigners without first being asked whether they speak English.
Solve this problem by mastering the phrase: Parlez-vous anglais? (Par-lay voo anh-gleh)–Do you speak English?–and use it before initiating conversation with a French person. You’ll find that this small effort will be greatly appreciated. If you’re moving to France or intend to stay for a long period, however, it’s a smart to learn the basics of French before heading over. Not only will it make life easier, it’ll open a whole new world to you.
A few other languages are spoken in France by a tiny minority of the French population, including: Breton, Basque, Catalan, Flemish, and Arabic.
In French culture, there are few social conventions as important as greeting people properly. It’s the number one way to make a good first impression. On the flip side, failing to greet someone properly is also the number one way to offend someone. But don’t worry, once you know the rules it’s easy.
In France, it’s polite to say “bonjour” or “bonsoir” (good morning/good evening) when encountering someone, even if it’s a stranger. For example, when entering a doctor’s office, it’s customary to greet those in the waiting room with a brief “bonjour.” You should also do this when entering a small boutique, shop or café.
When addressing or trying to get the attention of a person that you don’t know, you should begin the conversation with: “Bonjour Madame/ Monsieur.” No last name is necessary or expected. For example, if you get on a city bus and want to buy a ticket, don’t just ask to buy a ticket straightaway, but say: “Bonjour Monsieur…” then ask your question.
The double (and sometimes triple) kisses the French plant on each other’s cheeks in greeting is familiar to anyone vaguely familiar with French culture. This kiss is called la bise. Women generally give la bise to both male and female friends upon greeting them or when being introduced to new people in a social setting. French men give la bise to all female friends and their closest male friends, otherwise they shake hands.
When new to France, follow the lead of a French person you’re being introduced to, but generally women should prepare to give faire la bise (do the kiss) in non-business settings. Men should prepare to shake hands with other men, but faire la bise with women.
French families are generally close-knit. Immediate families dine together during the week and it’s common to lunch or dine with extended family on weekends.
Marriage rates in France have notably declined over the past 12 years. Many people are opting instead to enter into a civil union, known as a PACS (pacte civil de solidarité). Couples in a PACS enter a formal contract that gives them many, but not all, of the same legal rights that married couples enjoy. While the law was created in 1999 to give same-sex couples increased legal and financial protections, the number of heterosexual couples getting pacsé has overtaken the number of homosexual couples entering the contract. This may be partly due to the fact that same-sex couples are now legally entitled to marry in France.
The French have a reputation for being “cold” or “closed” but again this is a misunderstanding of French culture. On the whole, French people tend to behave with more formality and reserve than Americans, especially with strangers or new acquaintances. It may take several months–or even years, in some case–before you’re invited to a French home, especially among the older generation. But this doesn’t mean that person doesn’t enjoy your company. You’ll find that, whether invited into their homes or not, the French can be extremely kind, loyal, and caring friends and neighbours.
Food & Drink
It’s no secret that French cuisine and wine are held in high esteem throughout France and the world. Although the term “French cuisine” is generally used to embrace all foods from France, each region has its own specialties and styles, usually based on local ingredients. For example:
• Normandy’s farmlands and Atlantic coast produce dishes featuring seafood, apples, and dairy-products, such as butter, cream, and cheese.
• Burgundy, so close to cattle country, Boeuf Bourguignon (cubed beef cooked in red wine) is a well-known classic.
• The south of France’s Provence favors using olive oil over butter and traditional dishes often include fresh tomatoes, garlic, and herbs such as basil, rosemary and oregano.
• The Alsace, near the border of Germany, tends to feature hearty meat dishes, choucroute (sauerkraut), and other German-influenced foods.
Wine & Alcohol
French wines hold probably the most revered cultural status of all. With a history dating back to the Middle Ages, there are 12 major wine-growing regions in France, the most famous being Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. It’s thanks to France that we have well-known grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Indeed, almost all classic grape varietals in the world were originally sourced from France.
In 2016, France exported some $9 billion in wine, amounting to 28.2% of total wine exports. The country exports the highest percentage of fine wines in the world, although not the world’s top wine exporter (that honor goes to Italy…at the moment).
Despite the strong wine culture, most French people don’t drink wine willy-nilly. Wine is generally imbibed with meals, not before or after. Before-dinner drinks are called apéritifs and usually consist of champagne, beer, cocktails, or sweet drinks like fruit juice or port wines. Digestifs, after-dinner drinks, commonly consist of brandies or liqueurs, such as Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, or fruit-based Eau de Vie.
In France, people are generally expected to behave discreetly, although public displays of affection aren’t uncommon. You’re also expected to speak in quiet tones, particularly in restaurants. Whether true or not, Americans have a reputation for speaking loudly in public. So, if you want to show yourself to be a model of politeness in French society, modulate your tone accordingly.
Being a guest in a French home can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield when you’re not familiar with the culture (and sometimes even when you are). But most French people are forgiving of foreigners who make cultural faux pas, as long as it remains within the bounds of decency. Still, you can impress French hosts by knowing basics guest etiquette.
Never arrive precisely on time to a French dinner party. Being timely is considered slightly rude, as the hosts are often still making final touches. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes after the stated time is considered polite–but don’t arrive later than that.
When arriving at a French home for dinner, it is customary to bring a small gift to the host. Your safest bet is to bring flowers (avoid chrysanthemums due to their association with death) or a small box of chocolates or fine candies. Unless you know the host well, foreigners should avoid bringing wine as the host will have already paired wine with the meal. Never bring food, unless asked.
Remember the aperitif
Before the meal, there will almost certainly be an apéritif, where drinks will be served along with small items to nibble on. Don’t fill up at this point, as it’s only a teaser before the main meal. Also, remember that you shouldn’t start drinking your apéro until everyone has been served and the host gives a short toast (usually “santé”–good health).
French Table Etiquette
The French have certain dining rules that may come as a surprise to people new to French or European society. Here are a few:
• Wait to be instructed where to sit a French dinner table. The host usually has a seating plan. When possible, guests are seated by alternating men and women, but spouses and partners are almost never seated next to each other.
• Do not begin eating until everyone has been served. Often eating commences once the host says, “bon appétit” (have a good meal). If in doubt about when to begin eating, watch your host.
• Both hands should remain on the table (but not your elbows) while eating.
• As a rule, women do not pour themselves a glass of wine. It’s tradition that the male host or the French man seated next to a woman pours the wine for her. If you’re pouring wine, never fill the glass to the brim. The glass should be no more than two-thirds full.
• The French eat with their fork in the right hand and the knife in the left. They do not switch the knife to the right hand to cut their food. Don’t feel that you are expected to do the same.
• When you’ve finished eating, put your fork and knife together and lay them on your plate at the four o’clock position. The host will understand that you don’t want any more food. (This is true for dining in French restaurants as well).
• Cheese is served after the main course. One could fill a small book on the proper way to cut different cheeses. Just observe how other French people cut the various cheeses and do your best.
Business culture in France tends to be fairly formal and hierarchy is of the utmost importance.
When introduced someone always address them as Monsieur or Madame unless you are specifically invited to call them by their first name. Introduce yourself with both names. Shake hands lightly and briskly while looking the other person in the eye.
Wear formal business attire, unless you are specifically invited to dress casually. But caution! “Business casual” in France usually means that you don’t have to wear a tie with your suit. Appearance is highly judged in France: you should look well-groomed at all times and your clothes should be good quality.
Long-term relationships are extremely important in France. When new to the country, start developing a network of French colleagues. Make an effort to engage in light chat about work to build those relationships. Don’t veer into talk about your personal life. The French value their privacy and rarely talk about their personal lives at work.
Make an effort to learn a few French phrases and terminology relevant to your business. If you don’t know any French, it’s courteous to apologize for not knowing the language.
The French speak in a direct manner in meetings and discussions have an intellectual tone. A healthy, intense debate over issues on the agenda is normal in French meetings and it’s not unusual for the discussion to wander from one topic to another. Do not expect any conclusion or decision to be made at an initial meeting–usually the decision will be made after more discussion and thought. Don’t attempt to strong-arm them into making a decision, this won’t help and could make the situation worse. You’ll have more success reaching French colleagues with well-reasoned arguments and plenty of patience.
Hierarchy is adhered to strictly in France. Decisions come from those at the upper echelons of authority. Subordinates only act when specifically instructed to do so by a superior or the action is embodied in their job description. This can be frustrating for people who come from cultures that value taking initiative, even if it isn’t in the job description, when there is a visible need for action. In France, taking initiative in this way would be viewed as overstepping one’s boundaries.