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Decoding the French: Do they really complain all the time?

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Decoding the French: Do they really complain all the time?
Do the French really complain a lot? Photo: Rawpixel
10:00 CEST+02:00
When asked to reel off a few clichés about the French, it won't be long before people come to the idea of complaining. But is really true that the French complain all the time? And if so, why do they do it?

It's an inside joke among the French that the national sport isn't football, cycling, or tennis - it's complaining. Indeed, grumbling about anything from politics to delays in public transport seems to be one of the features that pepper French daily life.

So much so that various French presidents have over the years issued appeals to their fellow countrymen to stop complaining so much (although given that the president is usually towards the top of the list of things to complain about, that may not have been an entirely disinterested move).

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Sitting around in your local bar having a good complain can be surprisingly life-affirming. Photo: AFP

Newcomers to France can find the habit needlessly negative - but is French complaining all that it seems? And should you take the complaints too seriously?

Caroline, a 23-year-old French student, said: "Complaining is our small talk, we don't about the weather, we complain instead."

Several people that we spoke to backed the idea that French complaining - rather than meaning all French people are deeply unhappy at all times - is more of a necessary social lubricant and an outlet for shared frustrations.

"It's a favorite subject of small talk, a way of directing everyone's anger towards a common cause," explained Arnaud, a 37-year-old engineer.

Caroline agreed and sees grumbling not as a sign of unhappiness but as a kind of proactive idealism.

She said: "It's cultural to complain, but we're not that pessimistic as a nation.

"We have so many things going the right way that we want more things to go the right way… so we have to point them out to change them."

As for what people complain about, any topic seems to be fair game for a grumble.

The most popular according to Marianne, a 22-year-old student, are "daily annoyances - taxes, politics, work, public transport."


If you don't take to the streets with your complaints, they might never change. Photo: AFP

But some maintained there is a deeper, more historical factor behind it - namely the French Revolution.

Arnaud mentioned the overthrow of monarchy as an example of an attitude he sees as being rooted in the French mentality.

He said: "If we don't complain, things don't change."

Agnes, a 46-year-old nursing assistant from the French territory of Guadeloupe, agreed, saying complaining is a vital tool for social change.

She said: "The cost of living is high and salaries aren't increasing. We are victims of President Macron and his policies."

Indeed, organised complaining, or protesting, is both an inviolable principle and a feature of French society. 

The Local reported in 2016 that France sees more strikes each other than other developed European country and that the numbers have risen in recent years.

From the 1968 demonstrations to the 'yellow vest' movements, shouting grievances in the street is part of the French strategy for defending their rights and liberties.

As to which French regions housed the biggest complainers, there was some debate over whether Parisians complain more than anyone else.

Arnaud maintains: "For Parisians complaining seems to be second nature due to the urban environment, but the French in other regions are doubtlessly more chill." 

However, Corinne, a 65-year-old pensioner, thought that the complaining in other regions was worse than in the capital.

She said: "The further south we go, the less disciplined we are."

As there doesn't seem to be anywhere in France where you can go to get away from the complaining, why not try embracing it instead?

It's probably more interesting than talking about the weather and, if certain of our French friends are to be believed, it puts you squarely in a great French tradition that runs from the sans-culottes to the soixante-huitards

 
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