The ten places where you really need to speak French

In many situations in France foreigners can get away with knowing only the very basic “Bonjour”, “s’il vous plait” and “merci” and can even rely on English if needs be. But there are some places where speaking French is absolutely crucial, writes Katie Warren.

The ten places where you really need to speak French
Photo: Lily A./Flickr

Most French people in the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, bars— speak English, so you can usually get food and accommodation without speaking a word of French. 

You can even work in France without needing much French—  such as a bartender or an English teacher for example — and get by with speaking the bare minimum of the language.

But there are some places in France where knowing French is absolutely essential. Here’s a roundup of the nine places or situations where you’re going to need it most.

Any office of French administration

Photo: AFP

It could be the Prefecture, the Pole Emploi (employment center), the CAF (housing assistance), the Prefecture de Police , the CPAM office to get your carte vitale… A visit to any of these administrative centers in France strikes fear into the heart of most foreigners, who consider going to these places about as much fun as doing taxes, stepping in dog poo on the sidewalk, or using a computer with a slow Wi-Fi connection. 
Renewing visas, exchanging driver’s licenses, incomplete “dossiers“, hours of waiting… it’s the stuff of nightmares. Administrative workers tend to be the least sympathetic toward those who don't speak French, mainly because there’s the sentiment that those wanting to settle in France should be able to speak the language pretty well. 
Having at least a conversational level is crucial, or else you’ll need to bring a French friend along to help out. And ask and ask again. Even if it minds driving them mad.
The cheese/wine/meat shop
One French learner we know know well has refused to go into any fromagerie out of fear for what will happen in there. The same goes for the boucherie (butchers) and the wine merchants.

Sure, it’s easy enough to just point out your trusty old Brie or Camembert or the slab of beef or pick up any old bottle of red, but if you want to know what your buying or want advice for what cheese to get or what wine to go with what cheese then you'll need to learn the lingo and some specific vocab.

But if you actually want to know what differentiates certain cheeses, get recommendations based on your taste and be sure to get a cheese you like (even if it’s one you haven’t tasted before) you need to be able to converse with the fromager

They’re always more than happy to share their priceless cheese wisdom if you can speak a little French. 

ALSO: How to be on your best briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

The doctor’s surgery

Photo: AFP

While some English-speaking doctors can be found in Paris, expats living elsewhere in France can never bet on it.

Ideally when going to the doctor’s office, you should be able to explain your symptoms and perfectly understand the instructions your doctor gives you for treatment.

It could spell disaster if your doctor gets the wrong idea of what's wrong with you (or at least lead to embarrassment). 

Another person The Local France knows very well says he ended up naked in one consultation with a French doc even though he only went in with a sore throat. He reckons cupping his hands to stress how big his tonsils felt might have been the problem.

Best learn the vocab before you go. And just point.

The bank

Going to the bank in France can be a stressful experience for foreigners. Just to open a simple checking account requires navigating reams of paperwork, providing proof of housing and a work contract or proof of school enrollment, and promising your first-born child.

And tasks such as international wire transfers or setting up automated payments that require specific French vocabulary can’t always be done online as some foreigners might be used to in their home countries. 

And just wait until something goes wrong and you have to go in and explain they have charged you too much.

To make your life a bit easier, here are our five key tips to opening a bank account in France

The dinner party

Photo: AFP
A French dinner party is one place where you’ll really feel out of place if you don’t speak French.
Sure someone might be polite enough to speak English with you at first. But once the French get going on their lively debates, you can either sit in silence and lose all will to live, or have a high enough level of French to join in. 
Reaching dinner party level French is tough, but until you're there you are at least guaranteed good food and good wine.
The post office

Sending letters and packages home to family members and friends is just another part of expat life. But it can be tricky if you don’t even know how to say “expedited” in French (no, it’s not “expédié”) or “It needs to get there in three days or my sister will think I forgot her birthday.”

You also don’t want to find yourself uncomprehendingly agreeing to some super fast, heavily-insured delivery plan and paying 14 euros to send a greeting card.

The hair salon
Photo: Adam Sacco/Flickr
Sure, getting a bad haircut isn’t quite as serious as mixing up medications (although some might dispute that statement), but the hair salon is still a place where a certain level of French knowledge is necessary. 
You can show the hairdresser all the celebrity haircut photos you want, but if you can’t explain exactly what you want done to your hair, there are sure to be misunderstandings and you’ll walk out of a French salon de coiffeur much sadder and and worse-coiffed than you walked in.
On the phone
If you’ve even managed to dial the right phone number (curse those tricky French numbers), you’ll soon learn that rudimentary French won’t get you through most phone calls. 
Speaking and understanding French becomes a thousand times more difficult when you can’t see the face of the person with whom you’re speaking.
You get no context clues from facial expressions or gestures and you can’t mime actions for words you don’t know how to say. 
You just have to be able to communicate well in French, plain and simple. 
The real estate office 

Photo: Simon/Flickr

When finding a place to live in France, knowing all the renting and buying lingo such as caution (deposit), alimentation (water/electricity supply) and charges comprises (utilities included) is absolutely essential.

Otherwise you might find yourself living in a closet-sized (and closet-less) studio apartment with no windows, no bathroom, and barely room enough to stretch out your arms. Oh wait, that’s just normal life for renters in Paris…

When you're in trouble with the law

Not stamped your train ticket and want to get out of paying a fine? Gone through a red light in your car or even on your bike? Been caught for speeding? Been a little too raucous in the street? Yes, you know trying to come up with an excuse in French was impossible and the whole “I don't speak French” thing just doesn't work.

The same goes for if you are victim of a crime. In short if you want to converse with the French cops, learn their language.

READ ALSO: Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French

Member comments

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


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.