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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

‘In France we don’t make small talk about the weather, we complain instead’

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?

'In France we don't make small talk about the weather, we complain instead'
Small talk has a rather different slant in France. Photo: AFP

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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Member comments

  1. Complaining at a time like this is counter-productive. Here I thought they were about love and romance but instead incessant whinging designed more to call attention to their unique selves rather than bring about social justice. Frankly, it’s boring.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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