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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

From cheese and garlic to berets and sex, taxes and striking, France is heavily loaded with cultural stereotypes - and most of them are only partly accurate. 

Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb.
Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb. Read our myth-busting guide to French clichés. (Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD / AFP)

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, groundskeeper Willie describes the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” – an accurate description or unfair stereotyping?

Cheese obsessed 

Wartime leader and later president Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”

It would be wrong to deny that the French are cheese obsessed – France consumes more cheese per capita and has more varieties of cheese than any other country in the world. 

More than 40 percent of French people eat cheese every day. During the lockdown of 2020, many turned towards cheese as a source of comfort and raclette ranks as the country’s favourite dish

Surprisingly however, France was only the second largest producer of cheese (by weight) in the EU last year, behind Germany. 

Surrender monkeys

Monkeys probably isn’t the right word. Technically speaking, our species are classified by biologists as great apes – but we’ll let that one slide. 

But great apes with an inclination to surrender? Now we need to set the record straight. 

Aside from when they surrendered to the Nazis in WWII and refused to back the US in the Iraq War, France has overall been a military powerhouse.

Perhaps the golden age of the French military was under Napoleon who controlled large swathes of Europe. France also once held a vast colonial empire covering lands from Southeast Asia, to North and West Africa, to the Caribbean. 

Today, it spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001.  

It’s hard to quantify cowardliness but if you’re looking for a country unwilling to get its hands dirty, we suggest you pop over the border to Switzerland.

Bare boobs at the beach

In the past, French women were thought to be pre-disposed to going topless at the beach. But various studies show that this practice is in decline. Not only that but France pales in comparison to other European countries. 

An IFOP survey in 2019 found that only 22 percent of French women have ever gone topless at the beach – a huge decline from 43 percent in 1984. 

In 2019, women in Spain (48 percent) and Germany (34 percent) were more likely to have ditched the bikini top. 

French women were however more likely to go topless than those in the UK or the USA. 

Berets 

Ask someone to draw you ‘a Frenchman’ and he will probably be wearing a beret. But in truth, this item of clothing has largely gone out of fashion in most of the country. 

These flat, floppy hats, typically made from wool, were very popular among Pyrenean peasants in late Middle Ages, although they may have been worn even earlier than that. 

In the 18th century, berets became a popular accessory for French artists, before seeing a renaissance in the 20th century, when stars of the silver screen and movie directors adopted the look.

Since the end of WW2, the beret has died out in many parts of the country. You will likely find some artists wearing them in artsy quarters like Montmartre in Paris and old men wearing them in the French countryside.

Berets also remain popular in the Basque country in southwest France, where locals are proud of their distinctive béret basque design. 

Garlic lovers

Excessive garlic consumption is another French culinary stereotype worth kicking up a stink about.

While garlic genuinely does help snails taste better, France is far from being the biggest consumer. China dwarfs France in per capita garlic consumption. 

India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Russia, South Korea and Brazil are among the countries to consume significantly more garlic than France. 

And on the subject of allium vegetables, you will never see someone walking down the street in France with a string of onions around their neck. This image comes from the French onion salesmen who would cycle around Britain in the 19th and early 20th century selling their goods – a practice that has now been abandoned. 

Smokers 

French people do smoke – but less than you think. 

A quarter of French adults aged 18-75 said they smoked every day in 2020 and the overall smoking rate (including “social smokers”) stands at 34.6 percent. 

The French do smoke more than most of their neighbours and the smoking rate is certainly higher than in the UK (19.2 percent), Ireland (23.6 percent) and the United States (25.1 percent). 

But these numbers have been steadily falling for years and they are far from the heaviest smokers in Europe. Bulgaria, Latvia, Serbia, Greece and a host of other southern and eastern European countries seem to be more hooked on tobacco. 

What perhaps makes France seem smokier than it is, is the ubiquity of outdoor café terraces, where people gather to smoke, meaning that walking down a French street frequently means inhaling smoke.

Wine drinkers 

The French do love a good glass of wine.

In 2019, France produced 4.3 billion litres of wine, accounting for 17 percent of global production. France is the second biggest wine producer in the world, after Italy. Red wines made up for 55 percent of total production, while white wines constituted 26 percent followed by rosés on 19 percent. 

Although wine consumption is steadily declining in France, the country still managed to knock back 26,500 hectolitres in 2019. Santé! 

Infidelity 

Many believe that infidelity runs deep in French culture. Some experts even say that having a mistress is almost a prerequisite for French presidents. 

There is even a term in French, le cinq à sept, for the extra-marital affair. It denotes the time slot in which to do so. You finish work at 5pm (cinq) and have until 7pm (when you need to be home) to conduct your smutty business. 

But is the cliché for the randy disloyal Frenchman true? 

An IFOP study in 2019 showed that 37 percent of French women and 49 percent of French men have already cheated on their partner. 

France is generally pretty close to the top of global infidelity rankings, but various studies have said that Thais, Germans, Danes, Americans and Italians are more disloyal. These surveys must be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because some cultures are more open than others to admitting infidelity. 

There are also signs that the political culture is changing and the French media are more willing to expose unfaithful politicians – as the Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux found out in 2020 when his sex tape was leaked to the media. He stood down.

Does the Griveaux scandal mean it’s now open season on French politicians’ sex lives?

Master bakers 

The French are known to enjoy a good baguette. 

But according to the Guinness World Records, Turkey is actually the world’s biggest bread consumer per capita. At the turn of the century, Turkish people ate more than three times their own body weight in bread every year.

That isn’t to say that the French don’t absolutely love their bread. The country has around 33,000 bakeries – roughly one per 2,000 people. These establishments produce approximately six billion baguettes per year, generate €11 million in annual income and employ close to 180,000 workers. 

Long comme un jour sans pain – long like a day without bread, is an old French expression used to convey an unbearably long wait for something. Ever since the 17th century, a single day without bread in France has been difficult to deal with. 

In French restaurants, it is considered an outrage if a bowl of bread is not brought to the table before a meal. 

Strikes and protests

Always either on strike or rioting, goes the cliché, and it’s true that the French do strike a lot. 

In the private sector alone, one study suggested that French private workers strike more than public and private sector workers in every other OECD country. Factor in public sector strikers and France would be even further ahead. 

However, the way that strikes are recorded differs from place to place, meaning it is difficult to make an accurate international comparison. Most studies suggest that the French are world champion strikers. 

But this one from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more. 

Whatever way you look at it, striking is very much part of French culture. And it is not entirely a bad thing. It is because of militant trade unionists that workers’ rights are much better protected in France than in many anglophone countries like the UK and the USA. 

As for protesting, this has run in France’s DNA since the Revolution of 1789. There are so many protests here that it can be hard to keep track of. Some might criticise or belittle this part of the country’s culture – but freedom to protest is the sign of a healthy democracy. 

Taxes 

France has a reputation for exorbitant tax rates, and there is some truth in this. In 2019, France had the highest tax-GDP ratio of any EU country. Corporate taxes are also high. 

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The high tax levels in France help pay for a world class health service, education system and welfare safety net. If you are a French taxpayer there is also a lot of help available for you from the government, from free French classes to books and concert tickets for the kids and subsidised holidays.

READ ALSO Bikes, gig tickets and holidays – 7 things the French government might pay for

Grumpy 

France is a magnificent country. It has a vibrant culture, delicious food and a booming economy. 

But the French can be grumpy. So grumpy in fact that complaining is considered a “national sport”. Although this can be observed better in big metropolitan centres like Paris than in the countryside. 

It’s a cliché that the French themselves are happy to go along with, as the French writer Sylvain Tesson remarked “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they are in hell”.

But the French are happier now than ever – before according to an annual survey, the Baromètre des Territoires, which was first published in 2018. 

In 2021, the study found that nearly 80 percent of French people described themselves as happy or very happy. It also found significant geographical variations in where people were most likely to be happy. 

Bearing in mind the shockingly high happiness rate, if you come across a grumpy French person, you should be aware that this attitude is most likely performative. 

Member comments

    1. Yes, compared to the UK (which has a genuinely poor primary education system when compared to many other countries in the world). The way children are taught is up for debate though as rote learning does not encourage critical thinking yet the French by the time they reach adulthood seem remarkably able to have healthy debates and reasoned discussions with far greater ease than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

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POLITICS

What does a French Prime Minister actually do?

In many countries the Prime Minister is the ruler, but France has a system where the PM plays a different - but still important - role.

What does a French Prime Minister actually do?

Most people around the world can name the president of France, but you need to be following politics a little more closely to be able to instantly recall the name of the Prime Minister. 

And that’s due to the differences in both role and profile of the president and his (yes, France has never had a female president) prime minister.

The president is directly elected once every five years and once elected becomes the chef d’état (head of state). This means that as well as being in charge of the political direction of the country they are also the head of the armed forces (nominally, at least) and also take on the formal roles of state such as greeting foreign dignitaries. 

Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, France has had 9 presidents and most people could at least have a stab at naming them all.*

In the same time period there have been 24 prime ministers (including one woman), and you would have to be quite the political expert to get all of their names.** 

Unlike the president, the Prime Minister is not directly elected, they are appointed by the president, and can also be removed from the role without the need for any kind of vote.

Convention dictates that the president and the prime minister have lunch together once a week, although this had to be suspended during the early part of the pandemic. 

The relationship between a president and his prime minister can quickly sour. Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

So what do they do?

The simple definition of it is that the president runs the country and the prime minister runs the government, but it is of course more complicated in reality.

Foreign policy and defence is for the president while domestic policy comes under the remit of the Prime Minister. However, the president generally sets the policy goals and often announces high-profile policies, leaving the PM with the task of guiding the legislation through parliament. Exactly how directly involved the president gets with policy detail very much depends on the personality of the man in the Elysée.

Prime Ministers are also in charge of the day-to-day running of the government and head up the Council of Ministers, who take the key decisions of government. 

The PM deals with hiring and firing of the government ministers, technically they ‘propose’ candidates for each ministry to the president, although again most presidents get pretty involved in picking their ministers.

In some areas the PM acts as the president’s deputy or does the jobs that the president doesn’t want to do – for example, when Emmanuel Macron announced his controversial pension reforms in 2019 it was the job of then-prime minister Edouard Philippe to meet with the unions and try (unsuccessfully) to get them onside.

The role of Prime Minister is the second highest office in France, although if the president dies in office his role is taken by the president of the Senate. 

Elections

The PM also has a more overtly political role in that they fight elections.

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Once in office, convention says that the president should not get involved in the elections – parliamentary, local and European – that happen during their term.

However in order for them to be able to pass legislation it’s crucial that they have a majority in the Assemblée nationale, so the PM is delegated to make sure the president’s party has enough seats in parliament so that legislation can be passed.  

Who are they accountable to?

Technically, the Prime Minister is accountable to the National Assembly, not to the head of state. In practice, as explained below, they can be strongly urged by the head of state to resign.

When it comes to criminal proceedings, the Prime Minister, ministers and secretaries of state can be tried by the Court of Justice of the Republic for crimes and misdemeanours committed in the exercise of their functions. 

This is the court France’s former Health Minister, Agnès Buzyn, was tried in after being accused of ‘endangering the lives of others’ due to her statements early in the pandemic.

Resignations

It’s an often-repeated joke that the Prime Minister’s main job is to get sacked whenever the president needs to either boost his popularity or distance himself from an unpopular policy – and it’s certainly true that Prime Ministers rarely last as long in the job as presidents do.

The convention is that prime ministers always resign, rather than be sacked, but it’s pretty widely understood what has happened when the prime minister suddenly departs in the wake of a policy disaster.

It’s also wise not to try and eclipse the boss – Philippe was widely rumoured to have been sacked by Macron in 2020 for the crime of becoming more popular.

Philippe later revealed in his book on government and governing that the tradition is that on their first day in the role, the PM hands the president a signed but undated resignation letter, so that they can be ‘resigned’ at any time. 

So how do you get to be Prime Minister?

You need to be appointed by the president, so you either need to be a political ally or a rival.

It’s usually an ally of the president, chosen for their loyalty and effectiveness in making sure that the president’s wishes are carried out. It is not necessary for Prime Ministers to be in an elected office (eg MP, mayor) in order to be picked, although it is usual. 

Often they are well known in the political world before their appointment, but not always.

Jean who? Photo by Raymond ROIG / AFP

Jean Castex was so unknown when he was appointed Prime Minister by Emmanuel Macron in 2020 that many news outlets struggled to find a photograph of him.

Rivals

But sometimes the Prime Minister is the president’s political rival, in what’s known as a cohabitation.

A cohabitation (which doesn’t involve the president and PM actually living together, that would be a colocation) occurs when a president finds himself without a majority in parliament.

He then has to make a deal with the head of the political group that does have the majority. In exchange for their support in parliament, this person will usually demand that they are named Prime Minister.

What follows is usually an uneasy coalition – this has happened twice in recent years, in 1986 leftist Mitterrand had to appoint the centre-right Jacques Chirac as his PM. Chirac went on to be elected president, but he was forced into a cohabitation in his turn with the leftist Lionel Jospin in 1997.

The French PM lives and works in the rather beautiful Hotel de Matignon for the duration of their term, and in political shorthand are sometimes known as the locataire de Matignon (Matignon occupant), while decisions that come from the PM’s office as often referred to simply as ‘from Matignon’, in the same way as you would talk about a ‘White House source’ or a ‘spokesman for No 10’ in the US or UK. 

* The presidents since 1958 were Charles de Gaulle, Alain Poher, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Bonus points for remembering Alain Poher – he was acting president twice, once after the resignation of Charles de Gaulle and once after the death in office of Georges Pompidou

** Google it  

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