11 French life hacks that will make you feel like a local

It's beautiful and fascinating and unique but one thing France is rarely accused of being is easy to understand. For newbies there can be some surprising culture shocks, so here are some tips to make your life in France a little easier.

11 French life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP
1. Say bonjour (a lot)
If you’re considering a move to France hopefully you will have reached this word in your French textbook, but what language guides rarely tell you is just how important saying bonjour is. Virtually every interaction in France starts with a bonjour and not saying it marks out as rude. If you think you’re saying it far too frequently, you’ve probably got it about right.
In fact all forms of politesse are pretty important in France, from exchanging bonjours to saying farewell to everyone when you leave a group.
2. Go online
France has a reputation as one of the last bastions of the paper form and rubber stamp and while that was certainly true 10 years ago there is actually a slow but steady move online, driven at least in part by the relatively young government of Emmanuel Macron. The health crisis alone has given rise to apps to book a vaccine dose, to enter a restaurant or to travel across Europe while at the everyday level taxes, driving licences and residency cards can all be dealt with online.
Not only will you save on stamps, but online services can be easier if your French is still a little shaky.
3. Laugh at yourself 
And that shaky French will almost certainly get you into trouble sooner or later as you fall foul of one of the French language’s numerous traps for the unwary and announce to your office colleagues that you’re sexually excited, quiz a grocer about whether he has condoms in his jam or tell a waiter you want your water with testicles in it.
It’s inevitable and the only way round it is to laugh at yourself and humbly request the French person you are talking to to help you out. Most will be delighted to do so.
4. Take August off work (and July)
Abandon any notions of getting lots done over the summer. Large parts of France shut down as the French head to the beach and that includes many sections of public administration.
Don’t fight it – join in and give yourself a solid month off work, your general health and wellbeing will thank you for it.
5. Check the holiday calendar
Talking of holidays, France has a lot of public holidays, some pretty obscure ones like Christian saints’ days that might not loom large in your consciousness. If you don’t want to be standing outside your kids’ padlocked school wondering where everyone is, make sure you check which days are non-working days.
6. The hours of 12 until 2pm are lunchtime
This is less of a thing in the big cities, but in small towns expect most shops and offices to be closed between 12 and 2, so don’t try and get anything important done between those hours. Instead, take a break for lunch.
Conversely, many restaurants outside the big cities or tourist areas will only serve between 12 and 2, and from about 7pm in the evening. If you want to eat outside those hours, you need to look for a place that advertises ‘service non-stop’.
7. Always say no to mineral water
Waiters, especially in tourist areas, will often reply to your request for water with ‘eau minerale ?’ – but large bottles of mineral water frequently cost more than a bottle of wine. Unless you’re particularly attached to Perrier, Evian et al, request un carafe d’eau or un pichet d’eau – this means you will be brought tap water, which is free.
8. Be polite to fonctionnaires
Naturally we would advocate being polite to everybody, but if you have run into a bureaucratic snag (and you will do) don’t be temped to take your frustration out on the bureaucrat dealing with your case. No matter how justified your complaint, there is no point venting your frustration on the member of staff. While some countries have a culture of ‘the customer is always right’ French employees will happily refuse to help you or ‘lose’ your application if you are being rude or aggressive.
Instead pause, take a deep breath and remember that French bureaucracy is a necessary corrective to French bread, cheese and wine. Otherwise things would just be too perfect.
9. Wear your best underwear to visit the doctor
It’s pretty standard in France for your doctor to give you a general physical examination when you visit and this will often involve taking at least some clothes off. Doctors would regard it as slack to just hand out a prescription without performing an examination, so make sure you’re wearing your good underwear to avoid embarrassment. Just don’t end up naked and crawling on all fours like this hapless British newcomer.
10. Use markets
French food markets are famous, and rightly so. But not only are they an experience, they will also likely save you money. Away from food, check out the brocante markets (away from Paris) for bargains on furniture and vintage items or the marché aux puces (flea markets) at the cheaper end of the scale.
11. Don’t ask a question unless you want an answer 
French people can be pretty blunt (they would say honest) so don’t ask whether your new beret makes you look like a tourist unless you actually want to hear the answer. The concept of creeping around a subject to avoid giving offence is largely unknown in France, likewise if you have done something wrong expect to be told about it. While this can be startling at first it’s actually pretty refreshing not to have to worry about whether you have offended someone – they will let you know. 

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MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

While French cities such as Paris are notoriously expensive, there are many areas outside the cities where it is still possible to buy spacious homes for less than €100,000 - particularly if you don't mind a bit of renovation.

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

We decided to look at where in France you could afford a property on a budget of €100,000, and it turns out there are some bargains to be had.

There are a lot of caveats while searching for property, and many local variables in place, but our search does show some of the areas to concentrate on if you have a limited budget.

We used the Notaires de France immobilier website in August 2022, and we specified that the property should have at least five rooms (including kitchen and bathroom) and a floor space of at least 100 square metres.

We also discounted any property that was for sale under the viager system – a complicated purchase method which allows the resident to release equity on their property gradually, as the buyer puts down a lump sum in advance and then pays what is effectively a rent for the rest of the seller’s lifetime, while allowing them to remain in the property.

READ ALSO Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

For a five-room, 100 square metre property at under €100,000, you won’t find anywhere in the Île-de-France region, where the proximity of Paris pushes up property prices. The city itself is famously expensive, but much of the greater Paris region is within commuting distance, which means pricier property. 

Equally the island of Corsica – where prices are pushed up by its popularity as a tourist destination – showed no properties for sale while the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – which includes the French Riviera – showed only 1 property under €100,000.

The very presence of Bordeaux, meanwhile, takes the entire département of Gironde out of this equation – but that doesn’t mean that the southwest is completely out of the running. A total of 25 properties came up in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. One property was on the market for a mere €20,000 – but it was, as the Notaires’ brochure noted, in need of “complete renovation”.

Neighbouring Occitanie, meanwhile, showed 12 further properties in the bracket.

By far the most properties on the day of our search – 67 – were to be found in the Grand Est region of eastern France. The eastern part of France overall comes out best for property bargains, with the north-east region of Hauts-de-France showing 38 properties and and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté displaying 25.

Further south, however, the presence of the Alps – another popular tourist destination – pushed up prices in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which showed just three results.

The below map shows our search results, with darker colours indicating more cheap properties.

Property buying tips 

In order to make a comparison, we focused our search on properties advertised online, but if you have a specific area in mind it's well worth making friends with a few local real estate agents and perhaps also the mayor, since it's common for properties not to be advertised online.

Most of the truly 'bargain' properties are described as being "in need of renovation" - which is real estate speak for a complete wreck.

If you don't mind doing a bit of work you can often pick up property for low prices, but you need to do a clear-eyed assessment of exactly how much work you are willing and able to do, and what the cost is likely to be - there's no point getting a "cheap" house and then spending three times the purchase price on renovations.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - tips for French property renovation

That said, there were plenty of properties at or near the €100,000 mark that were perfectly liveable or needed only relatively minor renovations.

You also need to pay attention to the location, as the sub-€100,000 properties are often in remote areas or very small villages with limited access to amenities. While this lifestyle suits many people, bear in mind that owning a car is a requirement and you may end up paying extra for certain services.

Finally remember that government help, in the form of loans and grants, is available for environmentally friendly improvements, such as insulation or glazing.