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Ice to dryers: 14 of the most common American misconceptions about France

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Ice to dryers: 14 of the most common American misconceptions about France
A container with a drink is served at the McDonald's fast-food outlet in Lille (Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP)

If your friend is planning a vacation to France soon, they might have mentioned some of these misconceptions in passing.

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It is no secret that Americans love to visit France. In 2022, shortly after pandemic-related travel restrictions were dropped, 3.7 million Americans visited and pre-Covid visitor numbers sometimes exceeded 4 million.

But while many Americans have a deep knowledge of - and love for - French culture, there are some surprisingly enduring myths about France that can be found in the USA.

Some of these have a grain of truth but others are just flat-out wrong.

There is no ice in Europe/French restaurants charge for ice

Fiction - Americans love ice, beverages are routinely served with it and our refrigerators often have some type of ice dispenser attached to the door.

But in France, ice is simply less prioritised. While ice in your drink will not cost you extra, you do need to specifically request it. Soft drinks in France are usually served without ice, so if you want your beverage iced, you need to request the drink avec glaçons - with ice.

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The other thing Americans should be aware of when ordering in French cafés is that accidentally requesting mineral water instead of tap water will hike up your bill. 

French homes don't have dryers

Fiction - Tumble dryers do exist in France, but it is not standard for every household to have a dryer - especially apartments in cities. A Whirlpool study conducted in 2010 found that just 35 percent of French households owned a tumble dryer, whereas over 80 percent of American households had one.

That does not mean that the French do not use clothes dryers though - some might take items to a nearby laundromat. Otherwise, it is more common to let clothes air dry - either indoors or outdoors depending on the season. 

McDonald's is healthier in France

Fact (sort of) - Not all McDonald's are created equal. In France, you might walk into a McDonalds and find that the menu features delicious macaroons, pastries, and the new 'McBaguette'.

McDonald's uses different ingredients based on the country, and the Big Mac in France is (slightly) healthier than the one sold in the United States. It offers 27g of protein, rather than the 25g found in the American burger. It is slightly less caloric, with 510 kCal in contrast to American Big Mac's 540 kCal. The French Big Mac also has a bit less salt, carbs and fat, but it does not compare to the world's healthiest Big Mac (found in Israel). 

McDonald's in France also uses EU-sourced ingredients, and the EU restricts the usage of additives and growth hormones. For example Azodicarbonamide which is used to bleach flour, is banned in the EU, but not in the United States, where McDonald's was still using it as of 2016. 

Around half of the meat used in McDonald's burgers in France comes from the country itself, most of the rest is from Ireland and the Netherlands.

It is true, however, that you can buy beer in McDonald's in France. 

French people drive small cars

Fact - Some people do drive larger cars, but SUVs only represent 39 percent of car purchases in France, compared to 72 percent in the USA.

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This is in large part a result of a tax the French government introduced in 2022 to decrease SUV purchases. Any combustion-engined vehicle weighing over 1.8 tonnes will be taxed at €10 per kilogram above 1,800. This means that buying a 1,900 kg vehicle would also involve paying a €1,000 tax on top of the sticker price.

Some French cities are also bringing in plans to charge more to park heavy vehicles like SUVs.

READ MORE: French city to bring in parking charges based on car weight

There's an additional factor which is that fuel is more expensive in France, making gas-guzzling SUVs less attractive.

As of late August, filling up a 45-litre tank in France would cost at least €88, while the same sized tank in the US would cost $47 (€43).

You should not drink the tap water in France

Fiction - Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in France. In some areas of the county that have particularly hard water people often buy filters to save their kettles but the water itself is clean and safe.

It is also free - most cities have water fountains and some of them even contain sparkling water. If you see a tap that says eau non potable that means the water is not for drinking - such as the hydrants that the Paris street cleaners use. But most tap water is potable - drinkable.

L'eau de Paris: Why the French capital is launching a tap water campaign

There are no free public toilets

Fiction - Many Americans are surprised by French train stations that charge to use the public toilet, but on the whole, most cities do have free public toilets available for use.

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The big difference is that shops and smaller grocery stores typically do not have restrooms available to the public.  Metro (subway) stations also typically do not have toilets available. If you're driving, highway rest stops (aires) have free public toilets.

However, French cities have made an effort to increase the number of self-cleaning public toilets. In Paris, recent estimates show that there were at least 400 scattered across the capital, plus several dozen stand-up urinals and some public bathrooms at the entrances of parks and gardens.

The city of Paris has put together an interactive map to help tourists find nearby public restrooms.

French cities are not safe

Fiction - While it is true that petty theft is a persistent problem in French cities - especially pickpocketing in tourist areas - most cities are comparatively safe.

READ MORE: Reader question: Is Paris a safe city to visit?

For example the southern port city of Marseille - making the list for France's top 10 cities with the highest crime levels and often stereotyped as violent and unsafe - has a lower murder rate than nearly all American cities of similar size

For example in the first three months of 2023, Baltimore (a similar size town to Marseille) reported 66 homicides, double the amount in Marseille for the whole of 2022. Baltimore, Maryland recorded 322 homicides for the whole year of 2022 - about 10 times the amount in Marseille.

Americans often wonder about safety in France as protests and strike action are quite common, but organised walkouts and marches tend to be nonviolent. As for strikes, it is possible your plane will be delayed or cancelled, but your physical safety would not be in jeopardy. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know if you're in France during a strike

France doesn't have air conditioning

Fact (sort of) - When compared to the United States, where over 90 percent of households have air conditioning, it is certainly less common in France.

While it is not standard, around a quarter of French households do have AC and the market has grown in recent years.  On top of that about 55 percent of stores and 64 percent of offices had air conditioning in 2020, according to a study by Ademe.

Nevertheless if your hotel or Airbnb doesn't specifically mention AC, you can assume it doesn't have it.

Even when air conditioning is on, the French often keep temperatures less extreme and closer in line to what the weather is like outside. The American experience of needing to bring a sweater along to survive the chilliness of some buildings and stores blasting their AC is not likely in France.

Most buildings don't have elevators 

Fact - Many American tourists are surprised to find themselves at the bottom of a six-floor walk-up when staying in French cities. As buildings tend to be older, elevators are not standard and if they are available, they tend to be much smaller than people from the US would be used to. 

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As with AC, if your hotel or Airbnb doesn't mention an elevator then assume there isn't one.

If you have reduced mobility you will need to verify in advance that where you are staying will be accessible. For example, as of 2023, only 3,450 of the approximately 80,600 hotel rooms in Paris were wheelchair accessible - less than five percent.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: How accessible is Paris for people with disabilities?

Skincare and cosmetics are better in France

Fact - Many of the world's famous skincare brands - from L'Oreal to La Roche-Posay - are French and if you scroll through the blogs of travel influencers or their TikToks, you will find many discussing the 'best items to buy at French pharmacies'. 

'Better' is of course subjective, but French products do face tighter regulation on the ingredients they can use. The European Union operates with a more preventative and cautious approach when it comes to banning or restricting potentially dangerous chemicals, including those that typically be used in cosmetics. According to the Guardian, the "EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals while the US has outlawed or curbed just 11." 

Scott Gottlieb, the departing FDA commissioner, told the Guardian that cosmetics regulations in the US are outdated and "need to be overhauled to ensure public health" adding: “To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety."

For example formaldehyde can be used in skincare products in the USA, but is banned in the EU because of links to cancer.

Similarly, some American medications are not sold in France or Europe, due to their active ingredients being banned.

READ MORE: French pharmacies become new 'must see' travel tip for American tourists

Coca-Cola tastes different in France 

Fact - While Coke is available almost everywhere in the world, the actual ingredients in Coca-Cola are different in some countries, which could lead some Coke connoisseurs to notice a difference in taste between the products in the US and those in the EU. 

The biggest difference is the regular Coke - in the US this uses high fructose corn syrup while in Europe cane sugar is used to sweeten the product, resulting in a significant difference in taste. 

Diet Coke is banned in France

Fictionsome influencers have alleged that it is not sold in Europe. In reality, this comes down to translation. In non-English speaking countries Diet Coke is usually sold branded as Coca-Cola Light - as the parent company explains: "In certain countries, the term 'diet' is not used to describe low-calorie foods and beverages. In these countries, we offer Coke/Coca-Cola light."

The idea being that 'light' is a more internationally recognised word so that Coke doesn't have to offer dozens of different translations for 'diet' in different European countries. 

You don't need to tip

Fact - In France, service is included as part of the bill at restaurants and cafés, so - strictly speaking - it is not necessary to add a bit extra. However, it is a matter of personal choice and you are free to do so.

Several readers of The Local said they still leave some change after a particularly enjoyable meal. In terms of how much to give, most respondents to The Local's survey on tipping behaviours in France said that they would round-up a bill to include a tip, while others said that they would give some spare change.

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If you're paying by card you can just tell the server how much you want to pay, and it's also common to split the bill between a group with everyone paying by card, so you can just tell the server how much each person wants to pay.

Some may also opt to tip other professionals as well, such as hairdressers, taxi drivers, cleaners, and nail technicians, but again - this is optional and typically not a large quantity. In some apartment buildings, residents may collect a yearly tip for the gardien (doorman).

All cars are stick shift

Mostly fact - In the United States, stick shift vehicles are becoming a thing of the past, but in France they are still being bought and driven.

About half of all car sales in 2021 in France were manual vehicles, and many French car owners continue to drive older models. In contrast, as of 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that manual vehicle sales in the US had dropped down to just 1.7 percent. 

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Stick shift cars are slowly waning in popularity in France as well - in 2016, automatic vehicles represented 25 percent of new sales and now they are up to 54 percent

Nevertheless, many rental companies have a larger selection of manual vehicles, so Americans renting a car in France must specify if they want an automatic vehicle. 

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Martha Demetrion 2023/08/24 16:12
Estée Lauder is not French. It is a privately held American company founded in Queens, NY.

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