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12 phrases that will let you complain like the French

The Local France
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12 phrases that will let you complain like the French
Protesters hold Breton and French flags, with a sign reading "Screw you Macron" - using the French swear word "Emmerder" (Photo by JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP)

If there's one trait that appears to unite city-dwelling French people with their rural counterparts, rich with poor, old with young, its the love of a good complain.


French people are often stereotyped as grumpy and while we would dispute that and say they're actually pretty friendly, it does appear there is national quirk that makes them fond of a good old moan.

So much so that former president François Hollande even went on TV to implore the French to complain less.

READ ALSO: Decoding the French: They're not rude, it's just a big misunderstanding

He told the nation in 2014: "There is a sort of illness which is not serious but can be contagious, where we are always deploring and denigrating. You have to be proud!"

The French fondness for complaining can be summed up with the number of different verbs used to describe the activity. Aside from se plaindre which is the most frequently used, you have râler, rouspéter, ronchonner, grommeler, grogner and maugréer which are variously equivalent of to moan, to grouse, to grumble or to bitch.

But if complaining is a national sport in France, then in order to join in you're going to need the vocabulary to do it properly.



Chiant/e is the adjective derived from the verb chier which is a vulgar way to say 'to crap' or 'to shit'. 

But despite this chiant/e isn't quite as offensive or distasteful as you might think. 

It is frequently used in conversation to describe something as 'really irritating', 'really annoying' or in more extreme slang 'a pain in the ass'. 

For example you could say, Ce film est super chiant, ne va pas le voir. - This film is super annoying, don't go and see it.

Or in its feminine form: J'en ai marre de ma petite sœur : elle est chiante! - I'm sick of my little sister; she's really irritating!



Similarly, if you want to complain specifically about something being very dull, you could use assommant, which translates as  'boring', 'tedious' or 'stupefyingly dull'. It's stronger than ennuyeux which is the usual word for boring. 

So you could say Son nouveau livre est assommant - His new book is incredibly dull. 


A verlan word, relou is generally translated as 'that sucks' so it's good for expressing your disbelief or disappointment at a situation.

It's the verlan (reversed) version of lourd, which has a literal meaning of heavy and a figurative meaning of oppressive or unbearable. The verlan version, which is a more slangy alternative, packs a little more punch.

Relou is probably most frequently used when talking about a person whose presence or behaviour is or has become oppressive.
Au début, Pierre semblait cool, mais il est devenu trop relou - At first, Pierre seemed cool, but he got really annoying.

But you can also use it to describe an annoying situation 

Comment ça se passe, le travail à Paris ? - Je ne fais que métro, boulot, dodo, c'est relou. - How's the job in Paris going? I do nothing but commute, work, and sleep, it sucks.


If there's ever any sort of disruption in France (train breakdown, airline strikes, traffic gridlock) then you will need this to complain about it properly.

It's not slang, but it's a colloquial term for “mess” or "shambles" or even "chaos" or "bedlam" 

It's often used in news reports, so when when trains were blocked at Montparnasse station in Paris because of a power cut newspapers naturally referred to it as Pagaille à la gare Montparnasse - chaos at Montparnasse station.

If you want to talk about someone or something that is causing chaos, pagaille is usually paired with the verb semer, for example La neige a semé la pagaille -  the snow has wreaked havoc.

You could also use the verb provoquer, as in Une fuite de gaz provoque une belle pagaille au centre-commercial - Gas leak causes absolute mayhem at a shopping centre.

C'est le bordel

And if you want something stronger to express just how chaotic things are, this phrase will come in handy.

Literally, c'est le bordel means 'it's a brothel', but this expression is commonly used in spoken French to express annoyance against something or a situation that's untidy, messy or chaotic, both literally and figuratively as in 'what a bloody mess!' or 'it's mayhem!' or 'what a disaster!'.

It can describe any kind of disorderly situation, as in a traffic jam: C'est le bordel sur l'autoroute avec toute la circulation!  - It's chaos on the motorway with all the traffic!

Or, as in a headline in French newspaper L'Express, Trottinettes : Paris menace de les interdire, si le "bordel généralisé" persiste - Electric scooters: Paris threatens a ban if the 'general mayhem' continues.

C'est la galère

Another one that roughly means something is a nightmare or a struggle is C'est la galère.

You can also use it to describe a thing as being particularly difficult or challenging, so for example un jeudi galère - a hellish Thursday.



And if your general sense of disgruntlement has become so high that you think you might die of it, try this one. Crever literally means ‘to puncture', but the meaning we're concerned with in this case is the colloquial one, ‘to die', sometimes translated as ‘to croak' or ‘to snuff it' because of its slangy nature.

It's very informal, so if you are talking to someone whose relative has recently died, don't use this to express your condolences.

But you can use it to generally complain about a situation, such as Je crève la dalle - ‘I'm starving'/'I've really got the munchies' or Je crève de soif - ‘I'm dying of thirst'/'I could really use a drink' or On crève de chaleur ici - ‘We're overheating here'/'It's really hot in here'.

You can also use it to mean to kill, for example Casse-toi ou je vais te crever! - Get out of here or I'm going to kill you!

J'en ai marre

The expression J'en ai marre means 'I'm fed up', 'I'm sick of it' and 'It's getting on my nerves'. 
For example, you might say: J'en ai marre de tes retards incessants! -  'I've had it with you constantly being late!'
Or, J'en ai marre de ces grèves! Toujours la grève! - 'I'm fed up of these strikes! Always strikes!'
The infinitive of the expression is en avoir marre ('to be fed up', 'to be sick of'). 
The expression, while informal, is not rude or impolite - as long as you're not telling someone that you're fed up of them to their face, of course. 

J'en peux plus

Slightly more dramatic is J'en peux plus - I can't take it any more. It's important to note that the absolutely correct version of this expression is je n'en peux plus but like so many phrases in French the ne is often dropped in everyday usage. 

It's used for when you're getting to the end of your tether, for example Le bébé pleure tout le temps, j'en peux plus - The baby cries all the time, I can't do it any more. 

Or maybe for relationship woes - Il est saoul tout le temps, j'en peux plus - He's drunk all the time, I've had it.



This is one of those expressions that doesn't really have an exact English translation, although its general sense is also that of being fed up, despondent, gloomy or annoyed.

Very widely used in France, it's literal translation is "my bowl is full" but its sense is definitely negative. It can be used both to say that you are fed up and to describe a general sense of gloom over a group or even an entire country.

So you could say J'en ai ras-le-bol de l'école! - I'm fed up of school!

In the wider sense, you could use Drome, Ardeche: ras-le-bol des moustiques - Drome, in the Ardeche, is fed up with mosquitoes

Or Après l'augmentation des impôts, du prix de l'essence et du gaz, il y a eu une sorte de ras-le-bol général - following the increase and taxes and the hike id petrol an gas prices, there was a sort of general despondency.


Tu m'emmerdes

If you want to be a little more direct and complain directly to someone, rather than just about them, this is a good one to use. Tu m'emmerdes literally translates as 'you're shitting on me' but really it means something like 'you're pissing me off'.

For example you might say: Tu m'emmerdes avec tes questions - You're getting on my nerves with all your questions.

If you're talking about someone or something, you would use emmerdant which means 'annoying', 'irritating' or 'aggravating' as in Mon voisin est emmerdant, il joue de la musique toute la nuit - My neighbour is so annoying, he plays his music all night long.


We couldn't let an article about general disgruntlement go without mentioning this one. Much has been written about the many, many ways you can use putain, but it's certainly useful for general complaining.

Interestingly for a word that's generally translated into English as fuck, you can use putain for relatively mild grumbling, sighing Ah, putain as the queue in the post office fails to move, or Oh putain as you accidentally hit the wrong button on your computer.  


But if you want to ramp it up, it's all in the emphasis - Putain! Fait attention imbecile! - Fuck! Be careful you moron! at the motorist who has failed to observe priorité à droite and narrowly avoided hitting you.

(And if you want a family-friendly alternative, the French use both punaise or purée as substitutes for putain, literally translating as 'bug' and 'mashed potato' it's roughly the equivalent of anglophones saying 'sugar' when they mean 'shit').

Cows and bugs - how to 'swear' politely in French


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2020/05/01 15:32
My experience has been that the French grumble, but do not complain. When they get less than satisfactory service, they pay the bill, but swear never to use the service-provider again. Whereas I, and, I would have thought, most Brits, say we are dissatisfied with (normally) a service, with details, and I receive either a cancellation or, at least, a reduction in the charge. In such circumstances, I don't use any of your (very useful) list of grumbling words, although they do come in handy in other face-to-face situations.

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