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32 mistakes foreigners make when they arrive in France

Moving to France (or any new country) and trying to learn a new way of doing things can be daunting. Here are 32 of the most common mistakes that virtually every newcomer in France (including us at The Local) makes when first arriving in France.

32 mistakes foreigners make when they arrive in France
Photo: Tatyana A./Flickr

1. Tipping every time you go out to eat or grab a coffee. For Americans, it’s ingrained in their heads to tip 20 percent for basically everything, but by and large the French just don’t tip. Save some money folks.

2. Giving bisous to everyone, all the time. Although la bise is a staple of French manners, actually you don’t always faire la bise the first time you meet someone. Sometimes it’s just a handshake, especially with the older generations. La bise etiquette is one of the hardest things to learn for all foreigners in France, so don’t give yourself a hard time if you don't get it right away — give yourself at least a few years of living here. 

3. Mixing up tu and vous. Everyone’s done it — accidentally saying tu to a your French partner’s grandmother you’ve just met, or accidentally saying vous to a child… When in doubt though, best to use vous and you’ll be told when/if it’s okay to switch to tu.

Photo: Adrian Barrow/Flickr

4. Forgetting to stamp your train ticket at the station. This rookie mistake can lead to hefty fines, and SNCF personnel aren’t usually sympathetic to pleas of “I’m new here, I didn't know!”

5. Not taking €23 cash with you to the doctor. Heads up. It costs €23 to see a doctor in France, sometimes more. Many doctors don’t take bank cards. But you'll get at least some of that €23 back anyway if you have a carte vitale. The French don't hesitate to take advantage of their excellent health care system, which can take some getting used to for Americans who avoid going to the doctor unless absolutely necessary thanks to exorbitant health care costs. 

Photo: AFP

6. Wandering onto a Vélib track in Paris. That path is strictly for bicycles, and if you stray onto it, you’re likely to become the cause of a painful accident or at the very least an encounter with a very angry French person. 

7. Forgetting that motorway speed signs are for kilometres per hour and not miles per hour. Yes driving at 130 mph on a French autoroute is going to get you in trouble. Think.

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8. Showing up early to a dinner party. It’s the height of rudeness in France to catch your host unawares by showing up early. It’s much better to give them a bit of wiggle room and get there a respectable 15 minutes late.

9. Calling someone you’ve just met by their first name. Anglos tend to be a bit more casual when it comes to things like this, but unless a French person introduces themselves to you by only their first name, stick with Madame or Monsieur _______ until they give you the go-ahead to be on a first-name basis. And the same goes for tu and vous, as mentioned above.

10. Not having multiple copies of your birth certificate, passport, university diploma, 10 metre swimming certificate etc… all organized neatly in a file and ready to be whipped out for any administrative task you might need to get done. And all translated into French, of course.

11. Driving on the left. Don't scoff. The Brits do it, time and time again.

12. Offering your French friends red wine for an apéro. Vin rouge is meant to be drunk with food. For pre-dinner drinks, the French often go for a kir (a white wine/blackcurrant liqueur cocktail), a glass of Champagne, rosé, or a white wine.

13. Calling an office at 9am or at lunch time. Don't be silly, of course it won't be open. Try between 10 and 12pm and then 2pm and 4pm to be safe. Forget calling in August.

14. Leaving a polite space between you and the person in front of you while waiting in a queue. A French person will take advantage of it and cut right in there, so just get cozy with the person in front of you if you want to keep your spot.

15. Going to the cinema and expecting film to be in the original language. You might be in for a surprise if you didn’t check the cinema’s film details and you find yourself watching an American movie dubbed in French. Be sure to check the codes on the cinema’s website: if you’re seeing an English-Language film, VOSTF means Original Version with French subtitles. Otherwise, it will most likely be dubbed into French.

16. Stepping out on to a pedestrian crossing as soon as the green man appears. Don't be so reckless. At least three cars are likely to have gone through the red light and won't expect you to stick to the rules. So hold back from until it's safe.

17. Putting the washing machine on at night in Paris. You’re not living in a house anymore, and apartment walls in the capital tend to be paper thin. Neighbors can hear everything, so save yourself their wrath and do your washing during normal waking hours.

Photo: trepelu/Flickr

18. Trying do your grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Grocery stores in most of the country close after about noon on Sundays, but McDonald's is always open.

19. Saying “excusez-moi” and not “bonjour” when you are trying to get attention. Bonjour is the most important word in French, in case you haven’t heard and that goes for when you're trying to get someone's attention. Even saying excusez-moi will appear rude to some locals.

20. Saying “Bonjour” twice to the same person in the same day. Okay, turns out you can overuse it. Saying “Bonjour” to the same person more than once in the same day is seen as rude, like you’ve forgotten you already greeted them. Instead, you can give them a nod and just say, “Ca va?” or even “Re-bonjour”.

21. Getting in a huff when there’s no ice in your drink. This can be a tough one for Americans who expect ice in their water or soda even on the most frigid winter’s day. But the French really don’t understand this tendency, so if you want ice you’ll have to specifically ask for it, and even then, don’t get your hopes up. 

22. Thinking World War Three has broken out in your office. When really it's a just your French colleagues having what to them is a perfectly normal, if a little heated, discussion. Don't panic. They'll go for lunch together and carry on as normal until the next perfectly normal row.

23. Thinking you can use your bank card to pay for a baguette. There are minimum card charges here you know. Buy ten baguettes and you're fine.

Photo: sebastien panouille/Flickr

24. Petting Parisians’ dogs on the street. In some places such as the US, it’s often expected that if you have a cute dog people are going to pet it. In France, you’ll get a weird look and possibly an offended Frenchie if you don’t ask first. “Bonjour. Je peux faire une carresse, s’il vous plait?” should do the trick.

25. Telling someone off for smoking on a covered terrace. Remarkably French cafés and brasseries are basically allowed to build indoor terraces where smoking is allowed. So you will just have to put up with it.

26. Not greeting everyone individually at a dinner party. As a foreigner, you might get away with an awkward wave to the whole group for a while, but if you really want to integrate, just suck it up and go round each person kissing, unless they are of the older generation in which case a handshake might do. 

27. Trying to eat at a restaurant between 2pm and 6pm. Missed lunch? Don’t expect to find an open restaurant between these hours in most places in France, apart from Paris. You’ll just have to wait until dinnertime.

28. Saying an English word with a French accent. Yes it works about 16.8 percent of the time, but there are so many pesky false friends out there you will end up really confusing someone and probably embarrassing yourself if you opt for this oft-used tactic.

Photo: vonderauvisuals/Flickr 

29. Calling a waiter “Garçon”. Nobody says that, despite what your French text book says and it’s actually quite rude as it literally means “boy”. Instead you can just call the server “Monsieur” or “Madame” if it’s a woman of course.

30. Not having your passport on you at all times. You never know when you might need to hand it over for someone to make a copy of it. Or to prove you are who you are. Like in a bank, when you need money. A Driving license is not ID, we have been told many times, it is a certificate apparently.
31. Not realizing you can get a cheaper pint… if you stand at the bar. OK barman watching is crap compared to people watching on the terrace, but you will save a few euros.
32. Thinking your French date being drunk will increase the chances of them falling for you. It won't. They'll be sick. 
By Katie Warren/Ben McPartland

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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)