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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French

Always fascinating and frequently baffling, France is a country that often has people searching for answers on Google - but according to the search engine what are the most commonly asked questions about France and the French?

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French
Photo: Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

Looking at Google’s autocomplete for ‘Why is France . . .’ and ‘Why are the French . . .’ is a fascinating exercise, but perhaps tells us more about the preconceptions and stereotypes of ‘les Anglo Saxons’ than it does about France.

Google’s autocomplete uses a complicated and user-specific formula that we don’t even pretend to understand, but a major factor is how often these questions are Googled.

The adjectives that emerge about France are interesting – powerful, popular and expensive. Sounds like a Jackie Collins heroine. However, when we ask ‘why are the French . . .’ the suggestions are more of a mixed bag.

On the one hand slim, romantic and good at cooking, the French are also apparently critical rioters who like to surrender. 

Here are our suggestions to some of these questions, and why they are asked so often.

Why is France so popular? A slightly vague question but it might mean popular with tourists. France is the world’s number one tourist destination, a title it has held for several years.

We think the answer to that is a no-brainer, but we might be biased – here are some of the many reasons that tourists flock to France.

Why is France called France? The name comes from the Latin Francia which means ‘realm of the Franks’ referring to a tribe who lived in what is now France during the Roman period.

France is also sometimes referred to as l’Hexagone (the hexagon) because of its shape – this designation refers specifically to mainland France. France also has several overseas territories informally referred to as les DOM-TOM some of which are administratively part of France.

It’s how (pub quiz fact alert) France shares a border with Brazil.

Why is France so expensive? Interesting question. Some things in France are undoubtedly comparatively expensive, most of all taxes for residents, the French are among the most highly taxed in Europe. Elsewhere things are more variable – property in Paris is extremely expensive but in others parts of France can be comparatively cheap.

Food shopping is relatively expensive but wine is cheap (and delicious). Here’s how France compares to some other countries on everyday items.

In general a good rule is to avoid Paris if you’re watching the centimes.

Why is France a flawed democracy? Fascinating question. France is a democracy with an elected upper and lower house of parliament, plus a Constitutional Court to examine new laws that touch on the rights of citizens.

It’s not without its problems as a country of course, with ongoing problems with inequality, police violence and racism to name but a few. But it’s interesting that this question doesn’t pop up on similar searches for other countries. It may be that this is to do with France’s status as a favourite target for ‘bashing’ in the anglophone press? 

Moving onto the French themselves, and the questions become less factual.

Why are the French so critical? The French would probably say they are direct rather than critical and are frequently baffled by English reticence, but most French people acknowledge that complaining is practically a national hobby. This is unlikely to change, so here’s how you could view complaining and scolding as positive traits.

Why are the French so slim? Disappointingly, the answer to this one is ‘they’re not’. Despite the stereotype of the slender, immaculately-dressed Parisienne, obesity is on the rise in France and more than half of French adults are overweight.

Even more disappointingly, those French people who are slim are usually that way because they eat sensibly and do lots of exercise, not because those croissants have magical properties. 

READ ALSO Sex, stairs and the Metro – how do Parisiens stay in shape?

Why are the French so romantic? Measuring romance is of course not a scientific endeavour, but a stubborn cliché over at least the last 150 years is that the French are romantic, or at least sexy.

It might be slightly exaggerated and in recent times women have suggested that the much-touted ‘romance’ is more akin to sexual harassment.

READ ALSO ‘Frenchmen aren’t that great in bed’ – 5 French dating myths exploded

Why are the French rioting/on strike? One of the most persistent images of France is strikes and it’s true, French workers do strike quite a lot. They are not, however, Europe’s top strikers and interestingly the word ‘strike’ appears nowhere in the most frequently asked questions about the country that does hold that crown.

What French strikes are, however, is noisy, disruptive and highly publicised. Likewise with French riots – protest quickly moves to the street in France and although the great majority of demonstrators are peaceful and well-behaved, a noisy minority (often the semi-professional rioters of the Black Bloc) like to smash bus shelters, set fire to street furniture and end up on the news.

READ ALSO Don’t ask why the French are always striking, ask what their strikes have achieved

Why are the French always surrendering? There are entire libraries of books on French military history which we won’t attempt to summarise here, except to say that the French history of surrender is not entirely one-sided – they surrendered in World War II (but ended up on the winning side), didn’t surrender in World War I, did surrender in the Franco-Prussian wars (with the indirect result that some parts of France now get a day off on Good Friday) and under Napoleon won a lot of battles before being beaten by a European Coalition.

The most famous quote about French surrender is “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” which was actually coined by a writer on The Simpsons, but was frequently used in the USA in the early 2000s. At that time, US president George W Bush was annoyed that President Jacques Chirac refused to join the US-UK lead invasion of Iraq.

Books have also been written on which country made the right choice there. 

If you have questions about France, head to our Reader questions section – or feel free to suggest your own answers in the comments section below.

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FOOD & DRINK

France’s national fast food: What exactly are ‘French tacos’?

If you're from the north American continent, you are probably familiar with the (traditionally Mexican) taco - but in France you will meet 'French tacos', a different beast entirely.

France's national fast food: What exactly are 'French tacos'?

If you walk the streets of any French city or large town, you will likely stumble upon a fast-food restaurant called O’Tacos. But if you are expecting to be able to order a delicious Mexican al pastor taco with salsa verde, you will find yourself sorely disappointed.

As staff writer for the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote in 2021, “French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers”. In fact, one Mexican chef in Paris told Collins that she once had a customer “throw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco”.

French tacos (always spelled in the plural sense) are a popular and distinct fast food in France, often decried by health experts as highly caloric – an average French tacos clocks in at about 1,348 calories, and an XXL can run up to 2,300, above the recommended daily total caloric intake for an adult woman.

What many imagine when thinking of a taco is the traditional Mexican food, eaten by hand, which consists of a small corn or wheat tortilla filled with meat, beans and/or vegetables, topped with condiments like salsa or guacamole.

In contrast, the French taco is a flour tortilla filled with meat, sauce, and French fries, folded together and grilled to build a panini-burrito-kebab mélange. You can add plenty of other ingredients inside too – from cheese to turkey bacon. Most French tacos are halal-certified to accommodate Muslim customers – so do not contain pork.

The biggest chain is the strangely named O’Tacos – France is home to 300 O’Tacos restaurants – an amount that has doubled in the last five years, as French tacos continue to pick up popularity among the youth.

And you are not limited to O’Tacos for your French taco needs – plenty of smaller fast-food shops and chains across the country, particularly those selling kebabs and those that remain open late into the night – offer French tacos too.

The origins of French tacos

There are various claims regarding the origins of French tacos – or whether there is a single inventor of the fast food at all – but many point to the diverse suburbs of France’s gastronomy capital, Lyon. 

In a documentary by Bastien Gens, titled ‘Tacos Origins’, claimed that French fast food was created toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in Lyon suburbs of Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin. 

According to Collins, the “earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs.

However, some claim that the concept originated in Grenoble first, which is also the site of the first O’Tacos restaurant, opened in 2007 by a former construction worker, Patrick Pelonero, who told Collins he had never visited Mexico but simply enjoyed eating French tacos on his lunch breaks.

Tacos’ popularity 

One thing is certain – French tacos, typically priced around €5.50 are distinctly French.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Loïc Bienassis, a member of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, said that: “For decades, France has been an inherently urban, industrial, and culturally diverse country. The French taco is a mutant product of this country. It is its own national junk food.”

In the past few years, French tacos’ popularity has spread beyond the l’Hexagone – to Morocco, Belgium and even the United States.

The sandwich has become so trendy in France that some even refer to traditional Mexican tacos as a “taco mexicain” to differentiate between the two.

In 2021, over 80 million French tacos were consumed in France, making it more popular than the hamburger and the kebab.

In the same year, French youth also took to social media, joining in an O’Tacos challenge #Gigatacos. The goal was to consume a giant French tacos, weighing in at 2kg. Anyone who succeeded would be automatically refunded. Videos of the challenge coursed through French social media networks, with several million views.

While France is known for its classic cuisine, which relies heavily on fresh ingredients, the country also has a history of loving fast food, so it may come as little surprise that it would invent its own highly caloric dish.

As of 2019, France was home to the second biggest market for McDonald’s per head of population after the United States. 

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France

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