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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

From cheese and garlic to berets and sex, taxes and striking, France is heavily loaded with cultural stereotypes - and most of them are only partly accurate. 

Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb.
Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb. Read our myth-busting guide to French clichés. (Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD / AFP)

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, groundskeeper Willie describes the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” – an accurate description or unfair stereotyping?

Cheese obsessed 

Wartime leader and later president Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” (although France actually has far more than 246 different kinds of cheese). 

It would be wrong to deny that the French are cheese obsessed – France consumes more cheese per capita and has more varieties of cheese than any other country in the world. 

More than 40 percent of French people eat cheese every day  and raclette ranks as the country’s favourite dish

Surprisingly however, France was only the second largest producer of cheese (by weight) in the EU last year, behind Germany. 

Surrender monkeys

Monkeys probably isn’t the right word. Technically speaking, our species are classified by biologists as great apes – but we’ll let that one slide. 

But great apes with an inclination to surrender? Now we need to set the record straight. 

Aside from when they surrendered to the Nazis in WWII and refused to back the US in the Iraq War, France has overall been a military powerhouse.

Perhaps the golden age of the French military was under Napoleon who controlled large swathes of Europe. France also once held a vast colonial empire covering lands from Southeast Asia, to North and West Africa, to the Caribbean. 

Today, it spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001.  

It’s hard to quantify cowardliness but if you’re looking for a country unwilling to get its hands dirty, we suggest you pop over the border to Switzerland.

Bare boobs at the beach

In the past, French women were thought to be pre-disposed to going topless at the beach. But various studies show that this practice is in decline. Not only that but France pales in comparison to other European countries. 

An IFOP survey in 2019 found that only 22 percent of French women have ever gone topless at the beach – a huge decline from 43 percent in 1984. 

In 2019, women in Spain (48 percent) and Germany (34 percent) were more likely to have ditched the bikini top. 

French women were however more likely to go topless than those in the UK or the USA. 

Berets 

Ask someone to draw you ‘a Frenchman’ and he will probably be wearing a beret. But in truth, this item of clothing has largely gone out of fashion in most of the country. 

These flat, floppy hats, typically made from wool, were very popular among Pyrenean peasants in late Middle Ages, although they may have been worn even earlier than that. 

In the 18th century, berets became a popular accessory for French artists, before seeing a renaissance in the 20th century, when stars of the silver screen and movie directors adopted the look.

Since the end of WWII, the beret has died out in many parts of the country. You will likely find some artists wearing them in artsy quarters like Montmartre in Paris and old men wearing them in the French countryside.

Berets also remain popular in the Basque country in southwest France, where locals are proud of their distinctive béret basque design. 

Garlic lovers

Excessive garlic consumption is another French culinary stereotype worth kicking up a stink about.

While garlic genuinely does help snails taste better, France is far from being the biggest consumer. China dwarfs France in per capita garlic consumption. 

India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Russia, South Korea and Brazil are among the countries to consume significantly more garlic than France. 

And on the subject of allium vegetables, you will never see someone walking down the street in France with a string of onions around their neck. This image comes from the French onion salesmen who would cycle around Britain in the 19th and early 20th century selling their goods – a practice that has now been abandoned. 

Smokers 

French people do smoke – but less than you think. 

A quarter of French adults aged 18-75 said they smoked every day in 2020 and the overall smoking rate (including “social smokers”) stands at 34.6 percent. 

The French do smoke more than most of their neighbours and the smoking rate is certainly higher than in the UK (19.2 percent), Ireland (23.6 percent) and the United States (25.1 percent). 

But these numbers have been steadily falling for years and they are far from the heaviest smokers in Europe. Bulgaria, Latvia, Serbia, Greece and a host of other southern and eastern European countries seem to be more hooked on tobacco. 

What perhaps makes France seem smokier than it is, is the ubiquity of outdoor café terraces, where people gather to smoke, meaning that walking down a French street frequently means inhaling smoke.

Wine drinkers 

The French do love a good glass of wine.

In 2019, France produced 4.3 billion litres of wine, accounting for 17 percent of global production. France is the second biggest wine producer in the world, after Italy. Red wines made up for 55 percent of total production, while white wines constituted 26 percent followed by rosés on 19 percent. 

Although wine consumption is steadily declining in France, the country still managed to knock back 26,500 hectolitres in 2019. Santé! 

Infidelity 

Many believe that infidelity runs deep in French culture. Some experts even say that having a mistress is almost a prerequisite for French presidents. 

There is even a term in French, le cinq à sept, for the extra-marital affair. It denotes the time slot in which to do so. You finish work at 5pm (cinq) and have until 7pm (when you need to be home for dinner with the wife) to conduct your smutty business. 

But is the cliché for the randy disloyal Frenchman true? 

An IFOP study in 2019 showed that 37 percent of French women and 49 percent of French men have already cheated on their partner. 

France is generally pretty close to the top of global infidelity rankings, but various studies have said that Thais, Germans, Danes, Americans and Italians are more disloyal. These surveys must be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because some cultures are more open than others to admitting infidelity. 

There are also signs that the political culture is changing and the French media are more willing to expose unfaithful politicians – as the Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux found out in 2020 when his sex tape was leaked to the media. He stood down.

Does the Griveaux scandal mean it’s now open season on French politicians’ sex lives?

Master bakers 

The French are known to enjoy a good baguette. 

But according to the Guinness World Records, Turkey is actually the world’s biggest bread consumer per capita. At the turn of the century, Turkish people ate more than three times their own body weight in bread every year.

That isn’t to say that the French don’t absolutely love their bread. The country has around 33,000 bakeries – roughly one per 2,000 people. These establishments produce approximately six billion baguettes per year, generate €11 million in annual income and employ close to 180,000 workers. 

How many baguettes does the average French person eat per day?

Long comme un jour sans pain – long like a day without bread, is an old French expression used to convey an unbearably long wait for something. Ever since the 17th century, a single day without bread in France has been difficult to deal with. 

In French restaurants, it is considered an outrage if a bowl of bread is not brought to the table before or with a meal. 

Strikes and protests

Always either on strike or rioting, goes the cliché, and it’s true that the French do strike a lot. 

In the private sector alone, one study suggested that French private workers strike more than public and private sector workers in every other OECD country. Factor in public sector strikers and France would be even further ahead. 

However, the way that strikes are recorded differs from place to place, meaning it is difficult to make an accurate international comparison. Most studies suggest that the French are world champion strikers. 

But this one from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more. 

Whatever way you look at it, striking is very much part of French culture. And it is not entirely a bad thing. It is because of militant trade unionists that workers’ rights are much better protected in France than in many anglophone countries like the UK and the USA. 

As for protesting, this has run in France’s DNA since the Revolution of 1789. There are so many protests here that it can be hard to keep track of. Some might criticise or belittle this part of the country’s culture – but freedom to protest is the sign of a healthy democracy. 

Taxes 

France has a reputation for exorbitant tax rates, and there is some truth in this. In 2019, France had the highest tax-GDP ratio of any EU country. Corporate taxes are also high. 

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The high tax levels in France help pay for a world class health service, education system and welfare safety net. If you are a French taxpayer there is also a lot of help available for you from the government, from free French classes to books and concert tickets for the kids and subsidised holidays.

READ ALSO Bikes, gig tickets and holidays – 7 things the French government might pay for

Grumpy 

France is a magnificent country. It has a vibrant culture, delicious food and a booming economy. 

But the French can be grumpy. So grumpy in fact that complaining is considered a “national sport”. Although this can be observed better in big metropolitan centres like Paris than in the countryside. 

It’s a cliché that the French themselves are happy to go along with, as the French writer Sylvain Tesson remarked “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they are in hell”.

But the French are happier now than ever – before according to an annual survey, the Baromètre des Territoires, which was first published in 2018. 

In 2021, the study found that nearly 80 percent of French people described themselves as happy or very happy. It also found significant geographical variations in where people were most likely to be happy. 

Bearing in mind the shockingly high happiness rate, if you come across a grumpy French person, you should be aware that this attitude is most likely performative. 

Member comments

    1. Yes, compared to the UK (which has a genuinely poor primary education system when compared to many other countries in the world). The way children are taught is up for debate though as rote learning does not encourage critical thinking yet the French by the time they reach adulthood seem remarkably able to have healthy debates and reasoned discussions with far greater ease than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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