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.
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.”
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.
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.