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Cassoulet to cider: Where are France’s fiercest local rivalries?

From football to breakfast pastries, France contains some fierce local rivalries which are mostly fought through words and gastronomy, but occasionally spill over into physical battles. Here's a look at where near neighbours in France love to hate each other.

Cassoulet to cider: Where are France's fiercest local rivalries?
People demonstrate to call for the unification of Loire-Atlantique and Brittany in 2016 in Nantes. Photo: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD / AFP.

The French may have a love-hate relationship with many of their close neighbours, but the greatest ire is often directed at their fellow citizens. These are some of the conflicts you should only wade into with caution.

Normandy and Brittany over Mont-Saint-Michel (and cider)

Mont-Saint-Michel is officially in Normandy. Photo: Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP.

Not all of France’s rivalries are quite as violent as football brawls, but it would be a mistake to take them lightly. That’s the case for Brittany and Normandy, which between them account for a significant portion of France’s northern coast. And it’s a stretch of this coastline that has provided one of the key areas of contention between them. More specifically, the Mont-Saint-Michel, which has at times been a literal battleground between the two sides.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is officially in Normandy, but Bretons also like to stake a claim to the island. The conflict came to a head in 2018, when the town’s mayor tried to erect a Breton flag alongside those of Normandy and France, but was forced to remove it following complaints.

Of course, this being France, the rivalry also plays out at the dinner table. Not only do the two populations disagree over who makes the best cider, they can’t even agree on how to drink it. While in Normandy, cider is usually served in a glass, in Brittany it comes in a traditional bolée (bowl).

Lille and Lens over football

Six people were injured in confrontations between supporters during the Derby du Nord opposing the Racing Club de Lens and LOSC Lille over the weekend. Lens supporters unveiled an insulting sign which spelled out “Lillois merda” (Shit Lille), before invading the pitch to confront the Lille fans, some of whom had been throwing projectiles in the opposite direction, according to La Voix du Nord.

While situated in different départements, Lens (Pas-de-Calais) and Lille (Nord) are separated by fewer than 40 kilometres, but their fierce antagonism is often portrayed as a clash of cultures – the working class town of Lens was hard hit by the closure of the region’s mines, while Lille is seen as a more middle-class, cosmopolitan city – even if that’s certainly a generalisation.

The rivalry has been stoked by the two football clubs’ differing fortunes over the years, with Lille more recently gaining the ascendancy over their rivals after Lens dominated in the 1990s.

Lyon and Saint-Etienne also over football

Saint-Etienne’s fans hold up banners reading “Death to Lyon”. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP.

There are 60 kilometres separating these two towns in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Their rivalry may be best known for the tension between their respective football clubs but, as with Lille and Lens, the acrimony has deeper, cultural routes.

After the French revolution, Saint-Etienne began to grow and to rival its larger neighbour. This created a certain amount of jealousy, “especially as there was a symbolic element of the dirty city beating the rich city,” sociologist and writer Jean-Noël Blanc told Le Progrès.

However, inequalities continued, particularly in Saint-Etienne’s textile industry, where “lots of purchasers were from Lyon, which wasn’t particularly well received,” he added.

There’s also a very long-standing football rivalry – according to Le Progrès, one match against Lyon Olympique Villeurbanne in 1936 ended in a brawl, with the referee having to be evacuated, and a director from Lyon running off with all the money from the game so Saint-Etienne wouldn’t earn a thing.

South-west and everywhere else over pastries

Speaking of food and drink, French pastries have long been fodder for perhaps the fiercest debate of all: pain au chocolat or chocolatine?

It can often feel like France is split down the middle over what to call the breakfast snack, but in reality it’s mostly only people from the south-west of France who prefer the term chocolatine.

Even so, for many the word has come to represent their regional identity, and people from either side of the debate will fiercely defend their camp. One thing everybody can agree on though is that they are delicious.

Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary over cassoulet

What we have here is a rare, three-way rivalry between these towns in south-west France. Of course, it could only be a row over food. The reason? They all claim to be home to the best cassoulet: a hearty stew containing meat and beans.

Each area has its own traditional recipe: in Castelnaudary, goose or duck is used for the meat, in Toulouse it’s sausage or mutton, and when they’re in season, restaurants in Carcassonne will add partridge.

We’re not sure how the locals have the energy for all that arguing after eating a delicious, filling cassoulet, but some have tried to bring people together. French chef Prosper Montagné once attempted to reconcile the three towns into a holy trinity of cassoulet recipes: Castelnaudary the Father, Carcassonne the Son, and Toulouse the Holy Spirit.

Special mention here to the people of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and all those who have chosen a side, for carefully maintaining similar mutual resentment over who makes the best wine.

Alsace and Lorraine over history

You might think of Alsace-Lorraine as one entity, with memories of your history teacher telling you how the historical region was returned to France from Germany in 1918 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, but, like siblings who don’t get on, it’s often people with the most in common who hate each other the most.

The animosity between these two dates back hundreds of years, perhaps to 1525, historian Bernard Vogler told France 3, when the catholic Duke of Lorraine sent his army to crush a revolt of protestant peasants, killing 30,000 Alsatians. According to Vogler, the situation was reversed during the German annexation of the region between 1871 and 1918, when the Germans gave the best jobs to protestants, leaving those in Moselle in northern Lorraine “feeling like second class citizens”.

And nowhere was François Hollande’s 2015 regional reform more firmly opposed than in this part of the country, with Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne merging to become the new Grand Est region. In January 2021, the départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin merged to create the European Collectivity of Alsace, this recovering in a sense their historical region – while this is still part of the Grand Est, the move does show the enduring importance of regional identity in eastern France.

The ill feeling can also be seen on the football pitch during the “Derby de l’Est” opposing FC Metz in Lorraine and RC Strasbourg in Alsace.

Brittany and Pays de la Loire over Nantes

Over on the west side of the country, one département is at the heart of a conflict between two regions. Historically a part of Brittany, the Loire-Atlantique département was separated from the region during World War II by the Vichy government, and instead attached to what would in 1955 become the Pays-de-la-Loire region.

In Nantes and surrounding areas, pro-Breton voices have become increasingly loud in recent years, and in February the town council of Nantes voted in favour of organising a referendum to give locals a say over whether to rejoin Brittany.

While referendums over leaving a larger entity have proved, erm, controversial in recent years, 66 percent of those who live in Pays-de-la-Loire believe it would be legitimate for the people of Loire-Atlantique to decide their fate via a referendum, according to a survey from earlier this year.

Paris and Marseille over everything (and football)

PSG supporters hold a banner reading “It’s war!” before a match with Marseille in 2018. Photo: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP.

This is perhaps the most famous rivalry in France, with football-related battles being just the tip of the iceberg.

Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille regularly dispute “Le Classique” derby, despite being based at opposite ends of the country. As two of France’s most successful clubs they also have fans all over the country (president Emmanuel Macron is a long-term Marseille fan, despite being born in Amiens in northern France).

But the cultural battle goes much deeper – between north and south; between France’s two largest cities; between the rich capital and working-class port town; between chic Parisians and feisty Mediterraneans.

This conflict has also played out during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Marseille becoming a symbol of revolt against health measures decided upon in Paris, and controversial local microbiologist Didier Raoult establishing himself as a cult hero in the southern city.

Paris and, well, everywhere…

The culture clash between Paris and Marseille could be considered an extreme version of the relationship most of France has with the capital.

“Mistrust towards Paris is not the exception, it’s the rule, but people pay more attention to it when it happens in Marseille because it fits into their world-view,” Nicolas Maisetti, a political researcher at the Gustave Eiffel University Paris-Est, told The Local last year.

In other parts of the country, Parisians are often portrayed as cold, unfriendly snobs. This resentment was exacerbated during the Covid pandemic as many people from the capital rushed to their second homes in south-west France.

And if the rest of France hates Paris, it can often seem like the feeling is mutual.

In the 2008 Coupe de la Ligue final between PSG and Lens, the Parisian fans unfurled a banner reading, “Pédophiles, chômeurs, consanguins: bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (Pedophiles, unemployed, inbreds: welcome to the North), in reference to the hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) which had just been released.

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Where does the ‘romantic, sexy French’ stereotype come from?

One of the most enduring stereotypes about the French is that they are romantic, charming, seductive and just downright sexy. We know this label can't possibly apply to an entire nation - but where does the image come from? And how do the French themselves feel about it?

Where does the 'romantic, sexy French' stereotype come from?

Let’s get one thing clear – some French people are very, very sexy. Others are about as appealing as completing your French tax declaration. And the same can be said for all nations – so how did the anglophone world come to believe that all French people are innately stylish, beautiful and seductive?

The stereotype

In the anglophone world, the cliché about the French is that they are uniquely stylish and beautiful, sexually liberated and very interested in the world of love and romance.

In the case of French women they are alluring but aloof while Frenchmen – we are led to believe – are charming but faithless, always on the lookout for the next potential conquest and, of course, superb in bed.

While people like this probably exist, it’s far from the norm and yet this stereotype is remarkably enduring. 

We asked Emile Chabal, a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in European political and intellectual life of the 20th century, to explain more.

He told us: “Traditionally, and I think certainly in the 20th century, the dominant ideal of romance and style that has come out of France has involved beautifully cut clothes, elegant interactions between very eloquent people and a society that is very free in terms of interactions between men and women. 

“And all of these stereotypes come together to form an image of the French as a particularly romantic people and France as the home of love.

“And I think these stereotypes in many ways are wrong – France in the 20th century is a very conservative society, gender roles are really quite strictly policed and France is of course a Catholic country, so that has imposed strict roles on men and women and how they can interact.

“But I think a combination of French cinema, French music and prominent women in French intellectual life, such as Simone de Beauvoir, all add up to create an idea of France as a country that is particularly open and free, especially in the domain of love and sex.” 

The history 

So when did the anglophone world start to believe that the French have a hotline to love?

Emile said: “From at least the 15th and 16th century the French are known in Europe for being stylish and fashionable in terms of clothing. But to my mind it’s not until the 20th century that the association with France and sexiness is really cemented.

“What happens is that the French succeed in packaging and selling a certain type of ‘Frenchness’ to foreigners, and this works particularly on Americans, and a major source of this stereotype comes from America.”

Yes, anyone who believes that this is purely to do with self-evident French sexiness might be disappointed – the ‘French style’ stereotype was deliberately packaged and sold by marketing companies, artists and even the French government.

Over the decades this French ideal has been used to sell everything from fashion and perfume to holidays and mid-range family cars (such as Papa and Nicole in the below advert).

Emile said: “The domain of fashion is really important – haute couture is a very conscious branding of Frenchness. The way that fashion houses like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent – which were subsidised by the State – become global is really tied up with French attempts to develop this as a soft power – at a time when France’s ‘hard power’ – that is, military power – is under question after World War II, decolonisation, the formation of the European union. 

“From 1960s onwards the French state starts to subsidise culture in a very direct way, whether that’s subsidies for film, fashion events etc. It’s not an accident that certain people are being given a global platform to market an idea of French style.”

And perhaps the art form that created the most enduring images of the French of moody, romantic and sexually liberated was the cinema of the French New Wave. 

“I think the French New Wave cinema has a lot to answer for – fashion and style becomes embedded in the way that foreigners see French intellectual life – they see a way of being cultured in France that also involves style – smoking cigarettes wearing fashionable shoes and clothes etc.

“A lot of New Wave cinema is trying to bring a certain French philosophical topics into the conversation, but one that is heavily influenced by an American aesthetic. So actually what people think of as a very French style is heavily influenced by America.” 

The Americans

Speaking of Americans, it was in the US that the ‘romantic Frenchie’ stereotype first really took off in the period after World War II.  

The US remains a huge market for France, particularly in the realm of tourism. 

Emile said: “The British relationship with the French is of course much much older, but it’s a complicated relationship with a lot of history of conflict. Even in the period after World War II British politics tend to define itself in opposition to the French – we are not a land of revolution, of protest we are a land of consensus, parliamentary politics and this is important in terms of how the British see themselves as a global power. 

“The American view is more about individual exchanges and there were two groups who were really influential here.

“The first is the well-off white American women – WASPS – who came to France on holidays or cultural exchanges or to study – think Jackie Kennedy.

“They’re looking for something from France, they believe it to be the land of romance, the land of fashion, the land of style. For the most part these well-off, well-educated women returned to the US after their time in France and became housewives, so they tended to see their time in France as a ‘last fling’. Even if they didn’t actually have a romance there was still this sense of France as a place of freedom and glamour.

“And although these type of women were really tiny in number they went on to become extremely influential in setting a certain romantic image of the French.

“The second group were African-Americans who came to France, particularly in the period after World War II, in search of a society that was more open to them, and then reported back that France was a sort of paradise of freedom – I’m thinking people like Miles Davies touring in France and then saying “They respect me for who I am”. 


The most obvious success of France’s marketing of itself is in tourism where France is consistently the most visited tourist destination in the world, and Paris was in 2022 named the world’s ‘most powerful tourist destination’

“People came and continue to come in their millions to experience ‘Frenchness’,” said Emile.

“The packaging of France to the outside world leans very heavily on Paris – in contrast to marketing within France which centres on going to the mountains, the coast, the countryside and discovering new parts of the country. Paris is marketed to tourists, especially tourists from South Asia, China and the Gulf, as the home of luxury, fashion and romance.”

And if you want proof, check out this promotional video made by Paris City Hall in 2016 with the intention of luring tourists back to the city when visitor numbers fell after the 2015 terror attacks. The film begins, of course, with two attractive people in bed – the tagline isn’t quite ‘come to Paris and get laid’ but it’s not far off.

The future?

The classic stereotype still stands, but there has been a sustained backlash a lot of which has emanated from the French themselves – especially Frenchwomen who resent the narrow, restrictive stereotypes of the ‘French woman’, which really only ever encompassed a small group of wealthy, white, Parisian women.

Emile said: “There have been a number of high profile scandals among the intellectual elite involving paedophilia and incest, feminist groups are questioning this image of the ‘French woman’ and the gender roles that implies and there is an increasing focus on Black beauty as the ‘beautiful French woman’ stereotypes especially are overwhelmingly white.

“There’s also an evolution of style so that it encompasses more groups – it used to be that the French were stylish and the British eccentric so that if you didn’t want to dress in the traditional way in France you would go to Britain where people would tolerate you wearing weird things and that was great.

“That has affected this ability to market ‘French style ‘as universal. France has a long and contested history of trying to find a place for Black people and the questions are now being asked about whether these traditional styles work with Black bodies or Black hair and I think those have challenged the hegemony of French style.” 

But the stereotype is powerful and even though it is being questioned in France, it might take a long time to change preconceptions outside the country.