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LIVING IN FRANCE

Is it true that the French don’t like to talk about money?

How much do you make? Did you get a pay rise? What's the value of your house? These might seem normal questions for foreigners, but in France many people will consider them rude - as French writer Ilana Levy explains.

Is it true that the French don't like to talk about money?
Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

When you have just met someone and want to learn more about them, it’s normal to ask questions about their life and situation – but in France there is one subject that is somewhat taboo; money.

If the French will easily complain about how much they spent on gas or groceries or how much their rent is, they will rarely tell the exact price they pay. Instead, they prefer talking about their mental health or giving details about their sexual encounters. 

This particular French habit is said to come from both Catholicism and peasant culture. The Bible tells us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” and the Church pushed people to believe money should be taboo. After all, greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. 

In addition is the peasant theory; that you should hide your money otherwise people will get jealous and steal from you.

Whatever the reason, the French have a long history of keeping their income a secret. 

Pay packets

Around the world, many people don’t mind sharing their salary but in France, it definitely is considered presumptuous.

I asked a few French people how they feel about money.  “I would feel ashamed to tell someone how much money I make, especially if it is less than them,” said Alexia, a Parisian salesperson, told me.

“Moreover, some people are afraid to negotiate their salary and might end up earning less than their colleagues doing the same job. This is mainly why I would not talk about money at work,” she said. 

There is a real sense of prejudice because “people believe your salary reflects your education”, and “you would want to earn more than your friends, just for the pride,” explained Eleonore, a waitress.

Money is a private matter, she added, saying: “French people tend to deduce what you can and can’t have depending on how much you make a year, I would not want someone intruding on my privacy.”

Unsophisiticated

One thing French people hate more than anything is showing off. There is a real contempt for the ‘nouveau riche‘, someone coming from the middle class whose fortune is newly acquired and considered unsophisticated.

Showing you are wealthy is not considered classy, the French tend to still associate money with refinement.

This is personified in ex president Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who enjoyed wealth and luxury and was nicknamed the ‘bling-bling president’ by French people who considered his enthusiasm for money unsophisticated.

Tense 

Money is a real issue for the French, according to a January 2022 survey by Harris Interactive, money has already been the subject of disputes for 50 percent of them, most often within couples.

The same survey reveals that only 44 percent of people know the income of at least one of their friends, and they rather not ask the question. 

A generational issue? 

So is the taboo around money changing with the generations?

In my experience people in their 20s – like me – still consider it rude to show off their wealth, especially with the energy and financial crisis going on, but they are not afraid of discussing salaries.

“I don’t mind telling someone how much I make, I know it is not much, but we all have money issues,’ Etan told me. However, he added: “My parents would never tell me if they have issues.” 

But things are changing – the Church is not as influential as in the past, and people are not hiding their money under their mattress anymore. Moreover, the Covid crisis also seems to have encouraged the French to negotiate their salary: “I would never have negotiated my salary if I did not know that they needed people. It made me feel more confident about my income,” added Ethan.

 

Overall, the older generation still considers money a taboo in France, mainly because it is a tradition. The younger generation seems more open to discussing income – perhaps due to contact with other cultures and foreign people.

Ilana Levy is a bilingual freelance journalist living in Paris.

Member comments

  1. Not talking about money and salaries in not limited to the French. I believe it is regional and cultural. I live in rural Virginia, US (so Southern US). It is incredibly rude to discuss money, salary, prices paid, value of your home, etc. I have 3 brothers and I don’t know their salaries. I only had a general knowledge of my parent’s finances until I became their power of attorney. Of my friends, I don’t know their financial situation other than vague assumptions based on their home(s), how frequently they travel, and if they sent their children to private or public schools. Regardless, it’s none of my business.

    I have acquaintances from northern areas of the US. They ask me how large our farm is/how much land we own and I reply “It’s adequate for us”. They may ask again and I change the topic. If they are pushy and ask what we pay for something, I will tell them bluntly that I don’t discuss money.

  2. This is interesting, and most of what you say goes for British culture too – very much a generation/social class thing. The Americans have always been much more straightforward about discussing what they earn and spend – have a look at “Maigret à New York” (1946) and “Maigret chez le coroner” (1949). Despite speaking a similar language to the Americans, the British have more in common with the French and other Europeans. Aux chiottes le Brexit !

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MONEY

Timbre fiscal: Everything you need to know about France’s finance stamps

If you're doing a French admin task, you might be asked to provide a 'timbre fiscale' - here's what these are and how to get them.

Timbre fiscal: Everything you need to know about France's finance stamps

In France, you can buy  a very particular kind of stamp to cover the cost of a titre de séjour, or French passport, to pay your taxes, get an ID card if you’re eligible, or pay for your driving licence.

Basically a timbre fiscale is a way of paying a fee to the government, and some online processes – such as the tax offices – now have the more modern method of a bank transfer or card payment.

However there are plenty of official tasks that still demand a timbre fiscale.

In the pre-internet days, this was a way of sending money safely and securely to the government and involved an actual physical stamp – you bought stamps to the value of the money you owned, stuck them onto a card and posted them to government office.

They could be used for anything from paying your taxes to fees for administrative processes like getting a new passport or residency card.

These days the stamps are digital. You will receive, instead, either a pdf document with a QR code that can be scanned from a phone or tablet, or an SMS with a unique 16-digit figure. Both will be accepted by the agency you are dealing with.

Once you have the code you need, you can add this to any online process that requires timbre fiscaux (the plural) and that will complete your dossier.

You can buy them from a properly equipped tabac, at your nearest trésorerie, or online

Paper stamps remain available in France’s overseas départements, but have been gradually phased out in mainland France.

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