Culture
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15
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Apr 27, 2021

Beginners Guide to French Culture

Anne Desplanches

Anne Desplanches is an energetic and passionate museum professional born and raised in France. She grew up with a father who was an artist and who painted in Montmartre, Paris. Being surrounded by culture as a child, it became a major part of her identity. She deeply believes in the significant role that heritage contributes to social cohesion and unique aspect of population identity.

Frantastique

France has a long and eventful history, rich in cultural traditions. Visitors come to enjoy the country's historical sites, architecture, gastronomy, museums, natural places, and various local traditions of its different regions. Indeed, the richness of French culture is partly due to its diversity. The country is also well known and inextricably linked to its 'art de vivre.' France is often presented as a model for tableware, cuisine, aesthetics, refinement or elegance. However, some visitors will describe French as being rude. In fact, in their culture, the French are pretty polite. To understand these cultural perplexities, read more below.

Whether for four days or a year, when you stay in France, familiarizing yourself with its culture and traditions will significantly deepen your experience. Knowing that, before you get on the flight to Paris can make all the difference, and there are easy tips and essential facts that will help make sure things go well and better understand the French. This article will provide an overview of regional customs, traditions and culture in France, including major traits of French identity and some suggestions on discovering French culture in Canada.

What does ‘French Culture’ really mean?

Random chalk drawings, the one in focus being the French flag.
Random chalk drawings, the one in focus being the French flag.

The concept of French Culture poses specific difficulties and presupposes a series of assumptions about precisely what the expression 'French' means. France is the result of centuries of nation-building and the acquisition and incorporation of several historical provinces and overseas colonies into its geographical and political structure. Today, the country is a nation of numerous foreign languages, multiple ethnicities and religions. Many regions all evolved with their own specific cultural and linguistic traditions in fashion, religious observance, regional language and accent, family structure, cuisine, and leisure activities enriched by its unique skills and habits.

French culture is a mixture of many nationalities and customs called multiculturalism. Without denying each culture's particularities, French culture has evolved and transformed itself by uniting these unique cultures. Moreover, the blending of native French and newcomers creates a vibrant and proud French culture and is apparent in popular music, movies and literature. Therefore, there is also a cultural blending (métissage culturel) present in France alongside the mixing of populations. It may be compared to the traditional US conception of the 'melting-pot.'

‘L’art de vivre à la française’ - French way of life 

Time and enjoyment

A scene in a Parisian café.
A scene in a Parisian café.

French culture is based on living in the present and living well. The culture involves taking the time necessary - and maybe a little more - to enjoy moments. Eating good dishes and drinking good wine is an excellent example as the French love the experience that goes along with it: sharing and connecting with friends and family. With five weeks of paid vacation, plus every Catholic holiday ever invented, the French are known to be experts at living well.

For most French people, work is a way to gain money to spend on much more exciting activities during free time, like raising children, tasting new meals, or travelling despite being productive and committed while at work, very few French consider it a priority. Many see it more as a constraint or burden preventing them from what they love. In France, the law mandates that stores be closed on Sundays, even though some flexibility is gradually introduced. It is clear evidence that work is not placed above everything else. Sundays are typically days reserved for families with no shopping, sports or other activities. The French will go to the market to buy fresh vegetables, meet friends and neighbours, have a coffee in a little café and take the time to take the (slow) beat of the place they live in.

Debate and protest

Slogan waved during a strike against the far-right wing political group: 'Make love, not hate, stop the FN'.
Slogan waved during a strike against the far-right wing political group: 'Make love, not hate, stop the FN.'

French culture values the sharing of opinions. At times, the French may come across as pessimistic or bleak as they do not shy away from controversial subjects. Debating and engaging, in-depth discussions about politics, cultural events, education and philosophies are common. French people enjoy rational talks about ideas and analyzing social groups' interests and decisions and public figures. The main subject of conversation around the dining tables is often politics and economy. This cultivation of the intellect can sometimes have negative side-effects because they rationalize a lot, and it can get annoying for certain people. The French are often frank in conveying their opinions but don't misinterpret their confidence for arrogance!

Furthermore, France values liberty and human rights. French people believe in equality, so much so that it is rooted in the country's motto: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." The hate for social injustice and the readiness to take action against it are the leading causes of all the strikes. If something looks like social injustice, a social movement will arise, and most people will join protests, even if they are not directly concerned. However, many strikes are going on in France, which can be confusing for outsiders to understand each of the claims or concerns.

Romance, literature, and history

Black and white image of two lovers lying on the cobblestones along the banks of the Seine.
Black and white image of two lovers lying on the cobblestones along the banks of the Seine.

In the collective imagination, French is the language of love. French poetry, art, films and songs (Chansons françaises) all speak about romance or passion, longing and desire. It is true; the French embody romance and passion! Famous French artists, such as Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, Jeanne Moreau, Yves Montand, Françoise Hardy and more recent singer Carla Bruni have an impressive musical repertoire of powerful songs about love. CTA to our Spotify channel. Also, among the French words used in English, some come from the lexical field of love and charm, such as « femme fatale », « décolleté », « coup de foudre », « billet doux », « fiancée ». Moreover, the art of togetherness permeates the streets and is a healthy expression of love, and for that reason, all intimacy is considered beautiful.

Books such as Ernest Hemmingway's A moveable feast paint a picture of Paris as a profound and romantic experience, which may explain why people worldwide fall in love with Paris. If you are taking a trip to Paris soon, you should stop at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the famous Café de Flore, famous existentialist writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, used to frequent.

French literature has a long and rich reputation throughout the world. Many philosophers and writers from France have left a lasting legacy in literature such as François Rabelais, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, Victor Hugo, Pierre de Ronsard, Molière, Voltaire, François-René de Chateaubriand. Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is celebrated as one of the best novels of the 19th century. Hugo wrote it with the intent to encourage social reform and confront inequality in European republics. The book addresses French concerns for social welfare, but it establishes an origin for the staunch national pride France is credited with today.

History can be perceived as romantic, and France's history is deep and rich, including stories of Kings and Queens, Marquis' and Marquise', and all manner of regal figures. France has over 40,000 castles and fortresses dating from between the 9th and 21st centuries that have been preserved. The oldest one is the Château de Thil, which started in 850 AD. The most iconic castle of France is undoubtedly the Château de Versailles. Located 20 km southwest of Paris, it is the residence of the last king of France, Louis XVI, before the monarchy's fall in 1789. The palace has 700 rooms, 1250 fireplaces and 67 staircases!

Language and Education

French is the official and the dominant language of the country. Yet, France has many regional languages, some of which are very different from standard French. French is a Latin language with influences from Greek and other vernacular languages. Today, French is one of the six official languages ​​recognized by the United Nations. It is also the official language of the Vatican and NATO.

Regional dialects

There are around 75 regional dialects ​​in France. Some are taught in school, including Occitan, Breton (a Celtic language close to Cornish and Welsh), Basque, Corsican, Alsatian or specific Melanesian languages ​​like Tahitian. The most widely spoken regional language in France is Créole. The French Constitution was revised recently to create an official recognition of regional languages. It was implemented by the Parliament in Congress at Versailles in July 2008.

L’ Académie Française and the verlan

The French Academy from the Pont des Arts bridge on a sunny day.
The French Academy from the Pont des Arts bridge on a sunny day.

L' Académie Française (The French Academy) is a very special institution. It was founded in 1635 to regulate the language and still performs this function today and awarded literary prizes. The French Academy sets an official standard of language purity (standardized vocabulary and grammar), and it limits the rate at which the language can change.

Oppositely, the French sometimes use a slang known as 'verlan,' which inverts syllables. For example, the word 'verlan' itself is a reversal of the word 'l' envers,' which means 'the inverse.' Other commonly used terms include 'meuf' (woman, from 'femme'), 'chelou' (shady, sketchy or weird, from 'louche') and 'ouf' (crazy, from 'fou'). The verlan is common these days in song, especially in rap, but also in everyday life.

For example, do you know that the name of the famous singer Stromae is a word that comes from verlan? Indeed, 'Stro-mae' is the reverse of 'Mae-stro.'

Formalism

In France, formality, hierarchy, and authority matter in conversations. To show their respect, the French refer to the other person using 'vous' (formal you), but if they are chatting with a pal or a young person, they will use the informal 'tu.' This rule has genuine importance, and French people take it seriously as part of the language, one of the fundamental and most basic aspects. It is a very subtle subject that could seem tricky for people learning French. The use of 'tu' or 'vous' is not only a sign of respect, politeness or intimacy, and it is also an indication of the kind of relationship you agree on having with a person, as well of your whole attitude toward this person. With a single word 'tu' or 'vous,' the French let people know if you want to have a relatively friendly relationship with them or not. This rule is taught at the youngest age, and it is a big part of a child's education. Children learn from their parents that they have to say 'vous' to all the people they don't know.

Similarly, English speakers learn when to say 'mate,' 'sir' or 'dude' to someone. They will say 'sir' to a professor at university and their girlfriend's dad the first time they meet him, but they will say 'dude' to a friend, or 'sorry, mate' to a bloke at the pub; they are just bumped into. Usually, suppose you're an adult in France. In that case, you will be expected to use 'vous' when you address people you have never met before, people you hardly know or people who are socially above you and people who have not yet offered for you to change to a closer level of address. However, communists, trade unionists will use 'tu' as a statement that they refuse social hierarchy.

Finally, using 'tu' instead of 'vous' with a stranger can be by itself an insult. It might be a clear message that the person is not willing to show any kind of respect. However, the use of 'tu' from strangers could be seen as aggressive or impolite but would be excused if coming from foreigners. If you feel confused, the diagram below could help you to make the right call! Remember, it is highly essential to follow social conventions and exhibit an appropriate formality level in France. The French term 'faux pas' (wrong step) refers to an embarrassing or unsophisticated act or remark in a social situation.

A diagram to help you choose between 'tu' and 'vous'.
Diagram from the website Quora.

Education 

The French greatly value formal education, diplomas and intellectualism. In France, education is mandatory from the age of six, according to law by Jules Ferry dating from 1882, but generally, children enter school at the age of three. Schooling must continue until the age of sixteen and must be both secular and free. The goal is to democratize access to knowledge so that every child receives the same education.

Secularism, which is a fundamental principle of the school system in France, implies a separation between Church and State, which excludes proselytism or the visible wearing of religious symbols. Teachers must be neutral regarding their political, philosophical or religious opinions even if they have individual freedom of teaching in their pedagogical choices.

Philosophy is integrated into the curriculum. Kids read the works of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Indeed, the conception of French education gives pride of place to critical thinking and reflection. French classrooms also focus heavily on memorizing facts, completing worksheets and reading books aloud as a class. The French tend to emphasize critical thinking and encourage creative problem-solving. When students don't catch on to a lesson, teachers don't usually respond in a nurturing way. Instead, some may shame the student, often in front of the others. Teachers hope this will motivate the child to work harder. This tactic contributes to many young people putting pressure on themselves to succeed and having low confidence.

French Cuisine

Gastronomy is inseparable from the French way of life. French Cuisine is distinguished by its refinement and creativity and excellence in specific sectors such as pastry. This culture of eating well is a customary social practice for everyone and not just for the elite. It is not so much the plate's content as the importance of the meal and the friendliness.

In France, the meal is a moment that requires attention and time. Welcoming guests, purchasing the right, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table, are all priorities for the vast majority of French people.

Eat-in courses

Overhead view of a table where a meal is being shared.

In France, the meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the dinner) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. UNESCO even added the traditional French multi-course meal to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Prendre l'apéro (having an apéritif) before dinner, similar to 'Happy Hour' in Canada, is also popular. The aperitif is synonymous with conviviality. It is a light snack made up of peanuts, sausage, olives, and other tapas is a pretext for a drink, such as Pastis, Porto, Clairette, Rosé or beer, and to whet the appetite.

Moreover, the French stick to a regular meal schedule: a light breakfast in the morning, lunch at noon, le goûter (a sweet snack that the French enjoy around 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., just after shortbread, and dinner in the evening. French eat sweets in the morning. No bacon or eggs; everything revolves around pastries: croissant, pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant), pain aux raisins, and butter-jam bread. A walk to the nearest bakery to buy freshly baked pastries is a daily habit.

Each region has a distinctive cuisine based on local, fresh and seasonal ingredients and its specialties and styles. For example, Normandy's farmlands and Atlantic coast produce dishes featuring seafood, apples, and dairy products, such as butter, cream, and cheese. In Burgundy, Boeuf Bourguignon (cubed beef cooked in red wine) is a well-known classic. The south of France's Provence favours using olive oil over butter, and traditional dishes often include fresh tomatoes, garlic, and herbs such as basil, rosemary and oregano. Alsace, near Germany's border, tends to feature hearty meat dishes, like Choucroute and other German-influenced foods.

Importance of bread 

Crispy baguettes at a bakery on display.
Crispy baguettes at a bakery on display.

Bread is essential in French culture. It is the foundation of French cuisine, and it is included in nearly every meal. French eat bread for breakfast with butter and jam, for lunch (with cheese after a salad), snacks (with chocolate and butter) and for dinner, and of course, to clean up anything they have on their plate!

In France, every little town has its bakeries, and it is not rare for them to be the heart of the village. Bakers have fresh bread throughout the day. They bake twice per day to ensure there is fresh bread for both lunch and dinner. When you go to a bakery in France, you should expect to queue, even though the town you are in might has several bakeries nearby. With 26,000 boulangeries located across France, there's practically one on every corner. It is so essential to the French today that numerous enforced laws control the baking and selling of bread. It's only recently, in 2015, that a bakery law that had been in existence for 225 years was scrapped. The law, implemented in 1790, required all bakeries to report to the authorities when they planned to shut their doors and stop serving bread, even if it was just for a family holiday. The aim was to ensure that baguette-hungry locals could always get a loaf of fresh bread. If you are in France, it's acceptable to set your baguette on the table without a plate and use your fingers to break it.

The bread was a significant component of the average Frenchman's diet throughout history, and some would say that it was a bread shortage that sparked the French Revolution. At that time, an average Frenchman ate an average of 3 lbs of bread per day and workers typically spent roughly half of their daily wage on bread. When grain crops failed in 1788 and 1789, prices shot up, causing famine and economic upheaval. Many blamed the ruling class for these problems, and soaring prices contributed mainly to the people's anger against the monarchy. This anger eventually boiled over into uprisings, leading to the Bastille storm in July of 1789 and the ensuing Revolution.

L'élégance à la française - French habits  

French woman wearing elegant black ensemble with matching ballet flats.
French woman wearing elegant black ensemble with matching ballet flats.

Fashion and France have been synonymous for decades. The country is known for producing more of the most celebrated talents in the fashion industry than anywhere else in the world. Paris is known as the home to many high-end fashion houses (Maison de haute couture), such as Dior, Hermès, Vuitton and Chanel. Many French people dress in a sophisticated, professional and fashionable style, but it is not overly fussy.

French-style values comfort, but not too much the way the people sometimes wear in the United States. The French want to be comfortable, but not to the point that she will go out in sweatpants and sneakers. For the French girl, jeans and ballet flats are comfortable enough to be chic. Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin had an enormous influence on women's French style during the 1960s. The Frenchwoman doesn't really like eccentricity and sometimes likes to stitch pieces from the men's wardrobe.  

Art and Media

Art is everywhere in France, and a deep appreciation and respect for the arts are typical for the French. France's most influential graphic art forms are painting, sculpture, and architecture. The country became the center of innovative art at the beginning of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso came to Paris, like many other foreign artists. To learn more about art in France, check out our article about the museums in Paris.

Lascaux cave paintings representing an auroch.
Lascaux cave paintings representing an auroch.

The prehistory of French art is also important, including the famous cave paintings in southwestern France, La Grotte de Lascaux.

Moreover, theatre and dance have a strong tradition in France, both in the classical sense and in the realm of folklife. France's great dramatists include Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Molière, Victor Hugo and Jean Anouilh. The Comédie Française in Paris still presents the classic works of Molière and Racine. Street theatre, pageants, and regional theatrical productions also flourish in the provinces. The city of Toulouse is particularly well-known for its performing arts.  

Cinema

France (and particularly the city of Lyon) is the birthplace of cinema. Antoine Lumière realized, on 28 December 1895, the first projection of the 50-second film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. This marks the birth of the medium.

Worldwide appreciated and rewarded, French cinema is renowned. Movies give pride of place to psychology and not to pure spectacle or special effects. Several important cinematic movements, including the 'Nouvelle Vague' (New Wave), began in France. The New Wave is often considered one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema. The movement was characterized by its rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions in favour of experimentation.

Many French cities hold movie festivals during the year, the most famous being the Festival de Cannes in early summer, which is the world's most regarded event after the Olympic Games.

Where to go to see French Culture in Canada

If you want to see French Culture in Canada, there are many exhibitions of French artists and several temporary exhibitions featured in museums and art galleries all over the country.

In the past, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the Rodin Museum in Paris, produced the biggest exhibition devoted to Rodin ever presented in Canada. Later on, the Vancouver Art Gallery organized an exhibition on Claude Monet, Le Jardin secret de Claude Monet. in partnership with the Marmottan Museum in Paris. In 2011, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presented The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, the first international retrospective devoted to the famous French designer. In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, with the participation of the Château de Fontainebleau and the Mobilier National de France, presented a unique panorama of 400 artworks in the exhibition Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace. The exhibition was featuring many objects that have never been shown in North America that recreate Napoleon's court's sumptuous ambience.

At the moment, from July 4 to November 15, 2020, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts invites visitors to journey to the artistic ebullience of France at the turn of the 20th century with its exhibition Paris in the Days of Post-Impressionism: Signac and the Indépendants. Discover a magnificent private collection of 500 paintings and graphic works and the largest collection of pieces by Paul Signac. In addition to these pieces from the private collection, two rare pieces have been loaned from Paul Signac's descendants' archives.