French Cultural Tips
by Youliana Veltcheva
February 14, 2020
With a rich history and ethnical diversity, France has become a world leader in nearly all aspects of culture, including cuisine, wine-making, politics, fashion, music, art, film, and literature.
Let's explore some of the unique cultural aspects that are specific and unique to the people of France.
Greetings and Etiquette
In verbal greetings, French show respect by adding "Madam," "Monsieur," or "Mademoiselle" to any greeting.
In public, they generally do not smile at or make eye contact with strangers and keep their voices low when speaking.
Greeting involves shaking hands or embracing with a kiss on both cheeks (faire la bise ) the first time in a day one sees someone. Kissing is only done when two people are close friends or relatives. Additionally, it is expected that you greet a shop attendant upon entry when shopping in smaller stores.
There is also a different polite form to address someone older or a person you’ve never seen before. It is "vous", unlike the more informal form "tu".
Usually, when someone is younger or a peer, you can ask and make sure the "tu" form is ok to converse in. But it is always a good practice to start with the polite form to be sure not to offend anyone.
Meals and Traditional Food
Traditionally, French eat three main meals - le petit déjeuner (breakfast), le déjeuner (lunch), and le dîner (dinner). Breakfast is a light meal of bread, croissant, cereal, yogurt, and coffee or hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner generally involve at a minimum three courses, a first course ( l'entree ) and a main dish ( le plat ), followed by cheese and/or dessert. The courses are usually presented in small portions as over-eating is avoided. Fresh bread is usually included with the meal. And typically you will have a wine glass paired with each course. Dinner is usually at minimum an hour-long as people sit and enjoy the food and the conversation for a long time.
It is quite common for special occasions, holidays, and even weekends for meals to last three or more hours. In Normandy, there is a tradition, involving sipping a drink of calvados after each course, which also prolongs mealtime.
A typical family meal starts with a soup, followed by vegetables and a meat dish and then a salad, cheese, and dessert. Wine is usually served with meals. Some of the world's most valued and sought wines come from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Loire Valley. Sparkling wines from Champagne are also prestigious and world-renowned.
Some of the most famous cheeses of France include camembert from Normandy area, Roquefort from Occitanie, Brie from Ile de France. Among the common veggies, that you typically see on the plate are beets. They are included often in a plate of crudités (assorted raw vegetables) or in salads, but perhaps the most popular beets dish is “peasant beets,” which are beets with Swiss chard and cheese.
Endive, shallots, fennel, and leeks are ingredients often used in French recipes and are absolutely worth trying.
Some of the traditional local specialties, that are a bit eccentric are baked fish, served whole (with the head and the eyes), pâté de foie gras - goose liver paste or escargots sauteed snails, langue de boef (beef tongue), frog’s legs (cuisses de grenouilles), pieds de porc(pigs feet) and tripe (stomach) might be a bit much even for a savvy foodie.
French, especially women dress up, no matter what the occasion is. From stylish outfits and matching shoes to chic accessories, dressing sportsy is not a common thing. Style is a big way to express someone’s personality in France. French typically wear the same outfits over and over again, using different accessories, such as high-quality shoes or chic handbags to liven them up.
Regarded as the world fashion capital, Paris has many fashion boutiques spread throughout the city. Most of the major French fashion brands, such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Lacroix, are currently headquartered here.
Religion Rituals and Holy Places
The mainstream religion is Catholicism with 83% of the population being Catholic, 24% atheist and 3% - other religions. The French usually consider religion more of a tradition as less than 10% of the population attends regular religious services. The majority of the French go to church on major religious holidays.
France was the site of many pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. There are many historic churches that are visited regularly on religious holidays, with processions leading to them.
Lourdes, located in the Pyrenees region in the southwest, is one of the best-known pilgrimage sites in the world, visited by five million people each year. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, at the grotto in Lourdes. This miracle has inspired handicapped and ill people to visit this site and drink or bathe in the water, believed to have healing power.
Mont Saint Michel is one of the major pilgrimage shrines in Europe. Pilgrims coming from across the English Channel stopped at the magnificent island to experience an elevation of their spirits before heading to Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays it is one of the most visited sites in France.
During the holidays the majority of the locals head to the French Riviera and Provence.
To escape the heat of the summer, a lot of French prefer the Alps and the Pyrenees, offering a network of hiking trails and sporting activities, such as kayaking, rock climbing, etc.
Also, a common holiday tradition for families is camping. There are large camping resorts pretty much everywhere you can think of - from coastal, mountainous areas to even major cities.
French National and Civic Holidays
Civil holidays include New Year’s Day, May Day, Victory in Europe Day, Bastille Day, and WWI Armistice Day. Bastille Day is France’s national holiday, celebrated on July 14 to commemorate the success of the peasants, who fought to bring down the French monarchy in 1789. Big fireworks, town dances and other festivities are a typical way to celebrate the holiday. In Paris, there is a military parade on Champs-Elysées, involving the president and other important political figures. Along with Bastille Day, Armistice Day is the most patriotic of these holidays, marking the end of World War I.
May Day is a celebration of the country’s workers that takes place on May 1st. It’s a lot like American Labor Day, except it’s on the same day every year. French people also give out Lilies of the Valley or take them to loved ones’ graves on May Day.
The religious holidays include Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption Day, All Saints' Day.
Christmas becomes lively and festive with Christmas trees, lights, garlands, decorations, music, concerts and events that bring families together. Typical Christmas meals are salmon, oysters, turkey, and la bûche de noël cake.
The Easter bells or les cloches de Pâques are one of the main Easter traditions in France. The Thursday before Easter, all the church bells are silenced to grieve the crucifixion and death of Christ, remaining silent until Easter Sunday. Children wake up on Easter Sunday morning in search of Easter eggs (les oeufs de Paques) around their house and garden, similar to the American Easter tradition.
Over Easter, just outside of Paris, on the grounds of the Chateaux Vaux le Vicomte, the largest egg hunt in France takes place with thousands of eggs hidden all over the place for kids to find. The Easter weekend presents 'chasses aux oeufs' pretty much everywhere in France.
Art, Literature and Music
French highly appreciate art. They value Gothic and Renaissance art and are very knowledgeable about it. Artists from these periods drew their inspiration from religion and church. The older generation French, in particular, are art aficionados, who could talk about religion and religious symbolism in art at length.
World-renowned writers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Honoréde Balzac, to name a few, were great novelists of their time and have played a significant role in shaping the French culture and values.
Famous artists of the impressionism, include Claude Monet, Jean Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Morissette. Works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Pierre Bonnard followed later in the century, marking the period of post-impressionism. Great twentieth-century painters include Georges Braque, and Jean Dubuffet.
The art of sculpture also flourished, with the most famous French sculptor, being Auguste Rodin.
Opera and Symphony are also very popular in France. With works by composers, such as Rameau, Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Ravel, French classical music is appreciated and played not only in France but worldwide.