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FRENCH HISTORY

Donkey laws to theatre ghosts: 16 weird facts about France

With its sometimes arcane laws, weird words and complex history France is a country where a lot of bizarre and hilarious pieces of trivia can be found. Here is a small selection of the best France facts.

Do you know the story of the mystery theatre in the Paris catacombs?
Do you know the story of the mystery theatre in the Paris catacombs? Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP

Author and decade-long resident of France Piu Eatwell has put together a volume of trivia about France – in English – for those who just can’t get enough of this country, entitled “F is for France”.

The author describes it as a “tribute to everything eccentrically, paradoxically, surprisingly and delightfully French” and it runs from A for Absinthe to Z for Zinedine Zidane. 

Here are some of The Local’s favourite weird facts mentioned in the book.

1. You can commit “intellectual infidelity”

Under French law, infidelity can be “intellectual” as well as physical. In other words, excessive smoking, playing too much soccer, spending too much time with the local bishop, and phone sex can all be grounds for divorce.

In 1986, a French court granted a divorce to a husband on the grounds of the “intellectual infidelity” of his wife. The reason for the divorce was that the wife had allowed a rival to assume intellectual precedence in her thoughts over her husband, thus giving her husband the impression that she considered him worthless.

Don’t diss the donkeys if you’re visiting Brittany. Photo by LOU BENOIST / AFP

2. Don’t slander the donkeys

Contrary to their reputation for indifference to animals, the French can be extraordinarily caring to them. In the Breton village of Saint-Léger-des-Prés, for example, it is illegal to slander donkeys by the use of such insulting terminology as “jack-ass,” “dumb as an ass,”  etc.

Anybody breaking this law is required to make amends by offering apologies in the form of carrots or sugar lumps to the donkeys residing within the boundaries of the commune. The law was introduced in 1991 by the then mayor of Saint-Léger-des-Prés, who was inordinately (perhaps overly) fond of donkeys. 

3. There’s a blood pudding competition

Boudin noir is a form of blood sausage, similar to black pudding in the UK, and the best place to savour this is the town of Mortagne au Perche in Normandy, which has a special boudin festival in March, including a competition to see who can eat the most (up to three miles of boudin are regularly consumed).

Proceedings are monitored with an eagle eye by the Confrérie des Cheva-liers du Goûte- Boudin (“Fraternity of the Knights of the Blood- Sausage Tasters”).

4. Half the world’s roundabouts are in France

Over half the world’s traffic roundabouts are to be found in France, which, with more than thirty thousand roundabouts, has more ronds-points than any country in the world

5. The case of the mystery theatre in the catacombs

The catacombs beneath the streets of Paris are open to the public, but only in certain tightly-controlled areas. The remainder is strictly off  limits, but that has not stopped a hardy group of adventurers – the cataphiles – from exploring their depths.

In 2004, police patrolling the underground passages found an entire theatre with seating concealed in a vast 4,300-square-foot cave under the chic 16th arrondissement, equipped with a bar, pressure cooker for making couscous, stock of 1950s noir films, and contemporary cave paintings on the walls. When the police returned  later with electricians to investigate the power source, they found that the lines had been cut, and a note had been left that read “Do not try to find us.” 

6. Champagne glasses modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breast?

Legend has it that the classic Champagne glass or “coupe” was adapted from a wax mould of the left breast of Marie Antoinette.

The rather more likely – albeit prosaic – theory is that the coupe was designed for sparkling wine in England around 1663, and thus predated both Champagne and Marie Antoinette by almost a century. Nevertheless, the story inspired the sculptor Jane McAdam Freud to design a Champagne coupe moulded on the fashion model Kate Moss’s left breast, for the celebration of the model’s twenty five years in the business in 2014.

7. Marrying the dead

In France, it is possible with the permission of the president, to marry a dead person.

Posthumous marriage originated in the 1950s, when the fiancée of a man killed after a dam burst in the town of Fréjus applied to the then president, Charles de Gaulle, to carry through the  couple’s marriage plans and was granted permission. Since then, applications have been made, and succeeded at various times, for posthumous marriage  under this law.

8. Mayday, Mayday

The international distress code “Mayday” comes from he French M’aidez, meaning “Help me!”  Under the rules of radio signaling code, the word should be repeated three times (Mayday- Mayday- Mayday) by a vessel or aircraft in a life-threatening situation.

The word as a distress code was coined in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon airport, near London. Mockford was asked to think of a distress call that would be understood by all pilots and ground staff, and as much of the traffic at that time was between Croydon and Le Bourget airport, he hit on the idea of using the word “Mayday.” 

The Eiffel Tower, beautiful but unavailable. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

9. The Eiffel Tower is married

In 2008, a  woman married the Eiffel Tower, changing her name to Erika La Tour Eiffel in honor of her “partner.”

Erika, an ex-soldier who lived in San Francisco, had a history of “object fetishism,” and admitted to a past crush on the Berlin Wall.  There are believed to be about forty “objectum-sexual”  people in the world, mostly women. 

10. No trousers for women

Women in Paris are forbidden to wear trousers, unless riding a bicycle or a  horse.

The law – which dates from the 1800s – was originally introduced to dissuade the cross- dressing inclinations of the likes of author George Sand. The law is still, technically, in force. However, in 2013 the French Equality Minister stated that it has implicitly been overruled by subsequent legislation putting women on an equal footing with men.

11. Male impotence – a crime?

During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in France, male impotence was considered a crime, as well as  legal grounds for divorce. Men accused of impotence by their wives were required to demonstrate evidence to the contrary, by “standing to attention” and then ejaculating before an “expert panel” of clergymen and physicians.

Not surprising, many gentlemen failed this audition. There was, however, a second chance. Should one wilt  under scrutiny, one could request a “Trial by Congress,” which entailed husband and wife performing sex before the judges. The practice was declared obscene and banned in 1677.

12. The French typists’ phrase

Whereas the traditional English typists’ warm-up is “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” French typists can use the phrase “Allez porter ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume un havane,” as it contains  every letter in the alphabet. The phrase translates as – Take this old whiskey to the blond judge who is smoking a cigar.

13. World’s first department store was in Paris

The world’s first department store was founded by Aristide Boucicaut in Paris, in 1838.

The store, Le Bon Marché, became a centre for innovation and the development of modern shopping concepts including advertisements, browsing, and fixed prices. Boucicaut has been hailed as a genius, introducing the nineteenth-century middle-class woman to the pleasures of browsing in a store.

14. Illegal potatoes

Potatoes were once illegal in France. Known as “hog feed,” they  were banned by the French parliament in 1748 on the basis that they caused leprosy, among other  things (possibly because they are related to deadly nightshade, as are the tomato and tobacco plants).

Largely due to the efforts of pioneering army pharmacist Antoine- Augustin Parmentier (1737–1813), the Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared potatoes edible in 1772. 

15. English slang mocks the French

More than 75  percent of the slang English language phrases containing the word “French” are connected with sex. They include: French letter (condom), French maid, French pox or French disease (syphilis), French kissing, and Frenching (fellatio).

Interestingly, many of  these phrases are reversed the other way: a French slang term for condom is capote anglaise (English hood), and syphilis was referred to as la maladie anglaise.

16. And lastly… Be polite!

A mayoral decree of the village of Lhéraule, in the Picardy area of northern France, imposes a minimum level of politeness in the town hall. The rule is that you can be thrown off the premises if you  don’t use basic social graces such as saying “Hello,” ‘Thank you,” and “Good-bye.”

Want more fun facts? You can buy F is For French here (in book form or on Kindle).

Member comments

  1. Thanks for this amusing post. Here are some notes from an old pedant: 8. “m’aidez” doesn’t mean “Help me” – that would be “aidez moi”. The correct form is “m’aider”, as in “Pouvez-vous m’aider ?” 12. The correct English sentence is “The quick brown fox JUMPS (not “jumped”) over the lazy dog, otherwise there would be no “s” in the sentence.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

From military support to submarine disputes, statue-giving to French fry boycotts, the relationship between France and the USA has had its ups and downs over the last 250 years. As Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden meet in Washington, we take a look at some of the highs and lows.

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

Franco-American relations go back a long way, with US diplomats and politicians often referring to the French as “our oldest allies” – a callback to when French king Louis XVI decided to support the American Revolution led by George Washington.

However, it’s not always been smooth sailing.

You can hear The Local team discuss the Franco-American relationship with special guest Jim Bittermann, the veteran CNN correspondent, of the latest edition of the Talking France podcast. Download it here or listen on the link below. 

As Emmanuel Macron enjoys a state visit in the US – the first state visit of the Biden presidency – here’s a look at the best of times and the worst of times. 

Best moments

The Revolutionary War – Without the help of the French, the Americans would have struggled to win their War of Independence. In February 1778, General Washington made an unusually optimistic announcement, saying that France’s decision to join the war effort had introduced “a most happy tone to all our affairs”.

In 1781, the French fleet played a significant role in the American victory in Yorktown, Virginia, which put an end to the Revolutionary War. 

When the time came for Great Britain to recognise the sovereignty of its former colonies and sign a peace treaty with them, the signing took place in Paris, on September 3rd, 1783.

France’s military assistance for the United States during the war did come at a significant economic cost – the country found itself over a billion livres (the French currency at the time) in debt. Not long after, France embarked upon its own revolution.

During and after the Revolutionary War, the US was home to several francophiles, such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. As for France, French architect and urban designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who left his home country in 1776, went on to design the new capital of Washington D.C. There was also Marquis de Lafayette who went on the be a national hero in both countries, having served as a General in the American Revolution and helping to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man during the French one.

The Statue of Liberty – Otherwise known as La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty lighting up the world) the statue is a monument to Franco-American friendship. 

The 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty – who has welcomed scores of immigrants “yearning to breathe free” – is actually French. Dedicated in 1886, the statue was a gift from the French people, intended to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

The idea originally came from French historian Édouard de Laboulaye, an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (and reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

READ MORE: French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

First and Second World Wars – After almost three years of neutrality, the United States joined World War I, sending about 10,000 men a day during the summer of 1918 to the Western Front. The introduction of the American troops helped to strengthen the Allies and aided them in winning the war. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson sailed to France, becoming the first American President to visit a European country while in office. 

And about two decades later the US also joined the Allied side in World War II – thousands of American soldiers died on the beaches in Normandy during the D-Day landings of 1944 and are commemorated each year in June by French and American representatives.

However, in both cases, the post-war period proved more fractious.

After World War I, when President Wilson sought to negotiate his ‘Fourteen Point’ peace plan, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is reported to have said: “Mr Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only 10!” 

A home for America’s ‘Lost Generation’ – Many years after winning over the heart of Benjamin Franklin, other great American thinkers – artists and writers – found a home in Paris.

During the period following World War I, figures from Paul Bowles and Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, used their time in France to inform their art. Paris offered what many saw as a freer, more expressive and open environment (not to mention the fact that the exchange rate at the time meant that they could live well in Paris on just a few dollars a month). 

The worst moments

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and wine – here are some of the more strained moments in the long relationship.

The Quasi-War – American and French friendship lasted for the first few years after the US gained its independence, but relations turned sour soon after the start of the French Revolution, and the beheading of King Louis XVI.

France had lent vast sums to the US to aid in their struggle for independence, but the Americans suspended repayments of these loans, claiming that the new French Revolution made previous agreements null.

Things became even worse when the new French republic found itself at war with Great Britain, as the United States declared itself neutral in the conflict, claiming that their Treaty of Alliance with France had been with the now-deceased King Louis XVI, so was no longer valid. 

The US needed to continue trading with British colonies in the Caribbean and so negotiated the Jay Treaty. For the revolutionary government of France, this treaty was proof that America had decided to trade with France’s enemies, and therefore France ought to treat the Americans like enemies. French privateers went on to seize US merchant ships.

While war was never officially declared, American naval ships did have engagements with French naval ships.

Napoleon’s support for the Confederacy – Technically, during the American Civil War, France remained neutral. However, Napoleon III was known to have favoured the Confederacy, in part due to his desire to protect the cotton trade.

France also wanted to expand its influence in Mexico, and sent troops to help Mexican monarchists with their plan to restore the monarchy.

This led to the union building up American military presence on the border with Mexico, and eventually – between the troops and diplomatic measures taken – Napoleon was persuaded to withdraw his troops.

De Gaulle v America – After World War II the Allies instituted AMGOT – the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories – in the defeated countries of Italy and Germany.

However US President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed AMGOT should have been implemented in newly-liberated France too – primarily because he found it impossible to work with General Charles de Gaulle, who he believed had the potential to act as an authoritarian leader.

He was eventually persuaded by the American General Eisenhower to drop the plan, but unsurprisingly, the post-war period for Franco-American relations was at times tense.

For his part, De Gaulle strongly opposed what he saw as American hegemony, expelling American military units from French soil and partially withdrawing France from NATO.

The Iraq war – One of the most unhappy chapters in the book of Franco-American relations is that of the Iraq War.

While the French did express solidarity with the United States after 9/11, they did not support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq with then-President Jacques Chirac refusing to join the US-led coalition in 2003.

In a tit-for-tat response, the Americans renamed French fries as “freedom fries” while US cartoon The Simpsons got on board, coining the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French. 

READ MORE: Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

According to polling, French public opinion of the United States plummeted in an unprecedented drop as soon as the United States invaded Iraq. Those low opinions remained in place until the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Submarines – And finally, the relationship between France and the United States deteriorated greatly after what became known as a AUKUS affair in 2021.

Essentially Australia backed out of an agreement to buy submarines from the French and instead, the US ended up selling its own submarines, leaving the French out of the trilateral defence pact. In response, France threatened to recall its ambassador to the United States.

US president Joe Biden has since somewhat-apologised – calling the deal “clumsy” and saying that it “was not done with a lot of grace” – and when it came to the first state visit of his presidency, he chose Emmanuel Macron in what many see as a a way of smoothing ruffled French feathers. 

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