OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell – we do wash every day

Well aware of the stereotypes surrounding France, French writer Gwendoline Gaudicheau was nonetheless shocked to be told she smelled 'surprisingly good' - she delves into what lies behind the cliché that the French don't wash.

OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell - we do wash every day
See - we do have soap in France. Photo: AFP

When abroad, I – a French person – have been told several times that I smelled “surprisingly good”. When discussing these rather odd comments with my French pals I learned that it happened to some of them to.

Though I was aware of international questions about our hygiene, I genuinely thought the 'smelly French person' stereotype was a joke and widely known to be untrue, but it turns out a lot of non-French people still think we are a stinky nation.

While I understand than when visiting France, and especially big cities like Paris and Marseille, clean is not the word you’d use to describe our streets, the inhabitants are – generally – quite clean and nice smelling.

Where does it come from?

But the rumour that French people are not the fondest of water and soap actually goes back to before World War II.

At that time, Paris, like many other European cities, had very little indoor plumbing facilities – generally only in the fancier areas of the city. With no shower or bath in their homes, many French people could not bathe frequently and had to either share bathroom facilities with neighbours or use the bains douches municipaux (public bathing facilities).

Even after the war ended and the plumbing situation improved, the cliché remained and was even fed by British taboids in the 1990s.


At that time, articles were written addressing how the French bathed less and used less soap than the Brits after a survey came out in 1998. It said that each French person used 600g of toilet soap each year compared to 1.4kg for a Briton.

But what was not mentioned was the fact that at that time, shower gel was way more popular in France than it was in the UK, which could explain the soap gap.

Photo: AFP

Others say that the cliché was also kept alive by jealous competitors to the renowned French perfume industry. It is not rare to hear than these delightful scents are only due to the fact the French needed to come up with good products to cover up their bad smell.

Shower over bath

“I think that it’s the contrary, sometimes people’s perfumes are very strong and mix when in the métro and it’s then that it smells bad,” 24-year-old French student Mathilde told The Local.

But if French people love – sometimes a bit too much – their perfumes, it does not mean they skip the shower part each day. In fact, according to a survey issued last year by Euromonitor, French people shower more than Brits, though they bathe less.

READ ALSO: Perfume and pipi: The 10 smells that tell you you're in Paris

“Who has the time to bathe everyday, I’d rather take a quick and efficient shower and sleep more than spend 30 minutes in a bathtub,” Clémence, a student in Paris told The Local.

Indeed, bathing is not so much a French thing: it takes time and it’s not great for the environment. Though children bathe a lot, adults tend to only do it when they feel stressed and want to relax. 

It's also true that many smaller apartments in France are not equipped with a bathtub.

Remaining cleaning issues  

Though once the shower part is over, we may have some other sanitary habits to work on.

“Compared to other cultures, we are considered as quite dirty with for example people not washing their hands after using the toilet,” 23-year-old Inès told The Local.


In pandemic times, this might sound completely crazy but before Covid, only 75 percent of French women and 68 percent of French men said they washed their hands after going to the bathroom according to an IFOP survey shared by Le Parisien in February 2020.

On the same idea, only 42 percent of women and 31 percent of men said they washed their hands after using public transport.

And – in news that might strike a blow to the cliché of Frenchmen as great dates – one fifth apparently admitted to not changing their underwear every day.

READ ALSO: A fifth of French men don't change their underwear everyday

But for 23-year-old Marie, if the stereotype is much attached to French people, it’s also something you hear about other nationalities.

“I have heard it said that German people are very hairy and so smell,” she told The Local.

It's my experience that French people don’t smell that much, sure there are some with poor hygiene, but that’s also true of people in other countries.

Member comments

  1. I’ve never ever heard any one describe the French as smelly, but if you say, as a French person, that is the comment you’ve experienced I must believe you. It’s never occurred to me that the French smell except generally nice. The use of bidets has always been strange to the British it seems, one of the more sensible additions to a bathroom but completely absent from the average British home except as embarrassed smutty giggles. Cleanliness is the idiocy of the last 100 years and can be put down to the brilliantly success of the likes of Lever Brothers et al. One of the Royal family has, I read, bought a house in Los Angeles with 7 bedrooms and 19 bathrooms … What on earth do they do all day? Do you smell? Is your home smelly? Is your kitchen hygienic? It’s all bollocks peddled by companies wanting to instil fear and doubt to sell their products 90% of which are unnecessary. I’m sliding off topic here so I’ll leave it.

  2. It is something of a long standing joke in many English cultures but one I have not found to be true. I live in an agricultural region and we work hard…so people do get sweaty and can smell by the end of the day…that is perfectly natural.

    When I moved to the UK over 20 years ago people stank…using the Underground and buses in London was an endurance test…fortunately there too hygiene seems to have improved over the years…

  3. I spent a week in Versailles as a schoolboy at the Lycéé Hoche in 1952. I will forever remember the smell when travelling on the métro – Gauloises, alcohol and body odour. I have not been on the métro for a few years, but if my experiences in other parts of France are anything to go by there is no longer a problem!

  4. It’s something I have never heard any of my British friends say or even imply. The only Brits who I can imagine saying anything so unpleasant are those who still think Britain has an empire.

    Or Daily Mail/Express/Telegraph editorials of course. But then the truth is a foreign country to them too (-:

  5. Rob, with his comment on London Underground is very correct. It is much better but can still be a shock to the senses. The French no more deserve the reputation than any other nationality. It also depends on how much garlic we use.

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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?