When in France: Use first names with caution

One social faux-pas foreigners commit on a regular basis in France is being too hasty to address the locals on a first name basis, which can be the height of bad manners. Author Catherine Broughton explains what's in a (Gallic) name.

When in France: Use first names with caution
When meeting people in France, you need to know what's in a name. Photo: Shutterstock.

Like the Americans, the British are very first-name orientated.  

The French do not use first names as readily as we do, and I think this is because the French have not had the same high level of American influence in their culture. In France first names are not used with the same gusto, though this is changing as more and more British and American influence seeps in to the French way of life, much of it via television.

As an older person I do not hesitate to use the first name of a younger French person, if I know it. If I don't know it, but need to because I will be speaking to him/her again, I ask. Oddly, however, they will invariably answer "Monsieur Tartonpion" (or whatever). Now, as I am an older person, I feel free to say, "et votre prénom ?" Note that I am still using the formal "vous".

A young person will accept this quite happily. If that young person then starts to call me Catherine (though I cannot think of this ever happening actually) that would be offensive, simply because I am older. It would show considerable ignorance.

With older people it depends so much on the situation. I am a member of an Anglo-French group and when new French members join it is important that they feel at ease. To help them loosen up I immediately shake their hands and announce "ici, c'est les prénoms. Je m'appelle Catherine."  They then give me their first name… which I subsequently forget … because I am an older person!

Although some of them may feel a tad overwhelmed by the familiarity, the group is predominantly British and, on the assumption they have joined to meet British residents of France and/or improve their English, it is perfectly acceptable to launch into the British way of doing things. Which includes first names. It is not a faux-pas, they do not find it offensive – au contraire, it is friendly and appreciated. But there are only certain circumstances, like being members of the same club (in this case the Anglo-French group) where I could do this. In other situations I wouldn't.

If I meet a French person at, say, a dinner party, I will use first names too. It would be ridiculous not to, but I keep the "vous". It is not long ago that it would have been considered rather "forward" to use a first name in this way. On the odd occasion that I feel the person in question is slightly taken aback by my "forwardness" I smile and say "les anglais sont très prénoms!"  Any person who is out-and-out offended by it is a person I don't want to know and, as they say in French, they can go cuire un oeuf.

But – you should never use the first name of a person in a formal situation, least of all if they are older (let's say over 40 or so), like the bank manager, a notaire or a doctor. Ever. Not even when you get to know them well at a professional level, unless they invite you to do so. Which they won't. I died a million deaths on one occasion when I was helping to interpret in a notaire's (solicitor's) office and the English woman buyer cheerfully called the notaire by her first name. It was excruciatingly rude. Would she have done that in the UK, I wonder? I wouldn't. A notaire, male or female, is always addressed as Maitre.

Hilariously, some people will insist on giving you "Madame Tartanpion", almost as though it is a status symbol. As if my using their first name would be contemptuous or something. We took on a man to help in the garden for a while and he told me his name was "Monsieur Guillou". I was new to France and just assumed that Guillou was his first name, and that he was trying to keep a touch of formality by putting Monsieur with it. I called the poor man Guillou for the several months he stayed. He'd have done far better to tell me he was Benoit Guillou. He must have found me really quite snooty.

– If in doubt use Monsieur, Madame so-and-so.

– If you feel it is OK to use first names, keep the formal "vous" until they use "tu" with you. Again, that is unless you are considerably younger, in which case stick to "vous" unless invited to do otherwise.

– People in positions of authority should always be addressed formally and you can only consider first names if you meet them socially, with a few exceptions, for example, our garde champêtre (a kind of local police officer) I call Ludovic, his first name, because it somehow works.

– Trust your gut feeling and if you find you have got it wrong, just laugh it off by saying you are English. To that the French love to respond "ah, c'est très compliqué, le français" and then you can agree enthusiastically, smile a lot … and move on.

Catherine Broughton is an author who, with husband Bruce,  has lived in France for over twenty years. Her first book, "A Call from France" was published in 2010.   For more about Catherine Broughton go to

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).


The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river.