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La Belle Vie: Why France's lunchtime is sacred and other French values

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
La Belle Vie: Why France's lunchtime is sacred and other French values
Meals are displayed before lunchtime at the canteen of the "Pierre Fanlac" secondary school in Belves on September 13, 2019. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

From the importance of lunchtime to overrated tourist attractions and French values, this week's La Belle Vie newsletter offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like a French person.


La Belle Vie is our regular look at the real culture of France – from language to cuisine, manners to films. This newsletter is published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to your newsletter preferences in “My account”.

Most people who have spent time in France know that lunchtime is sacred - with most French workers making sure to take a proper break to have a meal in the middle of the day, rather than grabbing a sandwich on the go.

The reverence for lunch is a time-old tradition. French people learn to value the mid-day break as children - they either go home for a proper lunch with family, or they stay at school and enjoy a multi-course meal.

So, you might not be surprised to learn that a simple PB&J probably would not fly as a lunch in French schools.

Are packed lunches really banned in French schools?

I initially moved to France as an English teacher, and lunchtime was one of my first culture shocks.


I was amazed that kids were allowed to leave school grounds during lunchtime (this was not allowed in my home state of Maryland). I was equally impressed by the quality of the meals; no rectangular, cardboard-tasting pizza slices in sight.

Aussie-in-France Sam Goff had a similar first impression when she sent her kids to French state school.

Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

The impression that French people spend a lot of time at the table is backed by statistics. The OECD found that the average French person racks up two hours and 13 minutes per day (including weekdays) of time at the breakfast/lunch/dinner table, which was higher than Italians, Greeks and Spaniards.

Unsurprisingly, Brits and Americans also spend a lot less time than the French do enjoying meals.

Long lunch and leisurely dinner: Why the French spend twice as long eating as Americans

It is easy to stereotype French values as 'cheese, wine and pastries', but they are deeper than that. If you apply for citizenship here, you will likely be asked to name la devise (the country's motto): liberté, égalité, fraternité

But the true French values - those that foreigners are expected to abide by - are outlined in the country's constitution.

Explained: What are ‘French values’?

One clear French value is secularism (laïcité). France approaches the separation of church and state in a unique way that can sometimes be difficult for foreigners to comprehend. 


There are also a lot of seeming contradictions - for example, most of the country's public holidays are Catholic in origin. The reason these have stuck around might have something else to say about a not-so-official French value - an appreciation for time off.

Reader question: Why does secular France have so many Catholic holidays?

With their many vacation days and bank holidays, the French are known to travel around their own country. In fact, domestic tourism makes up the majority of the country's tourism-related profits. 

But the French know to avoid certain spots. Last week, we asked readers which places they would recommend staying away from, as well as the places that they would recommend visiting instead.

What are the most overrated tourist attractions in France?


Comments (1)

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Roberta 2024/05/25 14:42
I think that what sealed my Naturalisation interview was when I was asked for a traditional French dish & I answered "Boeuf Echalotte" - she was so surprised, & even her colleague in the next 'box' poked her head round so see who was this knowledgeable foreigner! So I told them that Echalotte was 'en promo' at Auchan that week & they should get down there asap.

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