France may not have lords and ladies like the British do, but that doesn’t mean that the class structure doesn’t exist in French society. That Frenchie with their nose up the air, sniffing out loud at imagined transgressions is not just a stereotype. Or is it?
When we think about French culture and that almost unattainable ideal, what we really mean is the French bourgeoisie ideal. From how to dress to how to hold a fork, to depictions in cinema and art, this is the social class that has fanned the flames of people’s imagination around the world.
The word bourgeoisie came about to refer to those living in market towns, which used to be called “le bourg” or “burgeis” (walled city) in old French. For instance, if you walk around Paris, you will see “Faubourg” marked on several street signs, meaning the edge of the city.
Historically, after the Gauls, Romans, and the Frankish tribes of France, people broke down into 2 classes, the noblesse and the peasants. As cities began form, a new social class of merchants emerged building businesses to serve either the noblesse or the peasants, and making money. These newly monied classes became known as the bourgeois.
After the French Revolution, when the nobles had to flee or get their heads cut off, the bourgeois emerged at the top of the social ladder. They came up with their own codes of conduct, borrowing liberally from the old noblesse, and making it their own.
These days, there is not just one type of bourgeois. With the ultra-rich to the nouveau riche, and everything in between, each social circle has their own network, levels of exigence, and habits. So let’s break it all down, shall we? Allons-y!
I. Types of Bourgeoisie
Now there can be some overlapping here between the different classes of bourgeois, but in general the French bourgeoisie breaks downs into the following categories:
1. Haute Societé bourgeois
The ultra-rich, and there are a lot of them in France, are usually referred to as the haute societé bourgeois. Usually referred as “la crème de la crème” of society, this should not be confused with the nouveau riche (newly rich).
French families from this closely knit social class can usually trace their lineage back at least a couple of generations, from the remnants of the noblesse to those industrialists who made their fortune in the aftermath of the great wars.
Usually owning large hotel particuliers (private mansions) in the Parisian area, this is a crowd that hobnobs with and has the personal phone numbers of the bourgeois politique, i.e. the President of France, ministers of the Assembly Nationale and other political hotshots.
Several of the richest people in France are also heavily invested in French luxury haute couture, so you know you need to dress well to hang out in this crowd.
2. Bourgeoisie de province
There is Paris and then there is Province. Note, province here means countryside, and should not be confused with Provence which is a region in the south of France.
So if you inherited your castle or manoir in the French countryside, you are likely part of the Bourgeoisie de province.
3. The Parisian Bobo (“Bourgeois-bohème”)
Now, while the other bourgeoisie is quite aware of who they are, the Parisian Bobo is partially in denial. Bobo stands for bourgeois-bohème and refers to those who are rather well-off but consider themselves not to be.
The sociologist Camille Peugny gave this definition in 2010: “a person who has income without it being enormous, rather a graduate, who takes advantage of cultural opportunities and votes on the left”.
The Parisian bobo usually lives in the lively areas of Paris like the north-east part of the city (eg. 10th, 11th, 12th, 18th, 19th, 20th), and proclaims to love the mixité (mix) of poor housing neighborhoods that dot this area.
Location is key here, with the Parisian bobo refusing to refuse even visit the expensively tranquil 16th arrondissement unless it is to watch a tennis game at Roland Garros (French Open). And heaven forbid they ever move outside the Paris intra-muros.
4. Bon chic, bon genre (“BCBG”)
Bon chic, bon genre or BCBG translates to “good class, good style” and is the equivalent of the American idea of “preppiness” and the United Kingdom’s “Sloane Rangers”.
As a social class, they are relatively well off without attempting to prove that they are gauchiste (left-leaning), unlike the Parisian bobo. Loving affordable French brands, they are known for their je ne sais quoi.
It is mostly associated with certain residential areas of Paris like the west side of Paris, and their suburbs like the areas around Bois de Boulogne, Versailles, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
5. La Petite bourgeoisie
La Petite bourgeoisie does not necessarily refer to location, but as comment to differentiate them from blue-collar ouvrier workers.
It is a class that includes mostly self-employed people like shopkeepers and artisans, who work for themselves and set the rules. They are those who are relatively well off, but not well-off enough to send their kids to that swanky private school.
II. Habits and Traits
1. The Zip code at birth
The entrance into the French bourgeoisie is usually made at birth. The French citizens receive a carte d’identité (identity card) on which the town or commune the person was born in is noted.
This birth information is usually required on just about official piece of paper required in daily life. And as such, there are a lot of assumptions and stereotypes made about the person based on where they were born.
On the other hand, the 93 zipcode Saint-Seine-Denis, another suburb of Paris, is the poorest in France.
2. Pied à terre in Paris
It may go without saying, but to be a member of the bourgeoisie, you have to own a place in Paris. Even if you are a Bourgeois de Province, you must have a small pied-à-terre apartment to stay in when you come to the capital.
Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world with a high cost of living due to real estate prices, so having a place in Paris is seen as a good investment. And if someone can’t afford to live in Paris, can they really be part of the elite?
Along with passing that apartment along as an inheritance, that pied à terre also comes in handy if the children want to go to one of Paris’s exclusive universities in the city.
3. House in the Countryside
Paris is quite a densely populated city, so if you want space, a garden, and fresh air, it means also having a résidence secondaire (2nd home) in the countryside.
Usually, the country home (or manor) is inherited from the grandparents and been in the family for a long time. It is usually a large familial house where several generations can gather and spend time together during France’s many holidays.
Most bourgeois who don’t live in Paris full-time will usually own a pied-à-terre close to where the high-speed TGV train is arriving from their country-house. There are 4 main train stations in Paris, serving the following regions:
- Gare de Lyon – Going south to the Alps, Provence & French Riviera, Switzerland
- Gare Montparnasse – Going west to Brittany, Normandy and Loire Valley
- Gare de l’Est – Going east to Alsace, Luxembourg, and Germany
- Gare du Nord – Going to the North of France, UK, Belgium
Now, if you know the geography of Paris a little bit, you may have been able to guess that Gare de Lyon (near the Marais) and Gare Montparnasse (near the expensive 5th–6th arrondissements) are the most popular areas.
Going down south or to the west coast of France in around 3 hours by high-speed train? Definitely the thing to do.
One of the main goals of the bourgeoisie has to be the capacity to pass on the status to the kids. And that starts with providing them with a good education.
A simple baccalauréat (“high school diploma”) will not do. The goal is to get the children into the French version of the Ivy league, which is one of the Grandes écoles, which literally translates to big schools.
Getting into one of these Grandes écoles like HEC, École polytechnique, and Science Po usually depends on an entrance exam. And the bourgeoisie is prepared to spend money on tutors and coaches in order to get the kids a placement.
And it depends on a good high school. Luckily if you happen to live in the expensive Latin Quarter or in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the elite Henry IV and Louis le Grand high schools are in easy walking distance.
Once you do manage to graduate from one of those Grandes écoles, your path is usually set. You are automatically assumed to be on the path to the C-suite and doors more often than not tend to magically open.
From pouring the wine to cutting cheese there are enough French dining etiquette rules to make your head spin. These rules were adopted by the bourgeois after the French revolution, when the nobles fled or had their heads cut off and the bourgeois became the new head of the class order.
When we talk about French style, we usually mean anywhere between a somewhat cheaper Parisian bobo style to a high-end haute bourgeois style.
Both focus on investing in classics and looking put-together, but not too put-together. Tailoring to an extent, with a bit of ecclectic whimsy to still remain eye-catching.
But attention, even if France is the land of haute couture fashion, showing pff expensive labels is considered gauche. Embrace the minimalism with a touch of the fancy and you too will blend in with the crème de la crème.
Make up should be minimal and hair must remain natural and understated at all times (no perms or hairspray helmet heads). In addition, if you are going to get plastic surgery, no botox eyelids or plumped up lips, please. Chemical peels on the other hand, are de rigeur, darling!
If you are wondering why skiing is so popular in France, look no further. There is a certain caché of being on the social ladder rung to be able to afford kitting out the family for a week or two at an expensive ski resort in the Alps. And all the better if you have your own lodge, within walking distance to the ski lift.
Other popular sports among the bourgeois include tennis, golf, and of course yachting. Saint Tropez, here we come!
8. Social networks
As they say, it is not about your grades at Harvard, but about the network of friends and colleagues you form there. Well it is the same among the French bourgeoisie.
From schooling at a young age to private sports and dining clubs for the adults, it is about hanging out with “a certain type of crowd”. There are several members’ only clubs around Paris, and its surrounding area offering things like tennis, golf, and private access to those who can afford it.
France has been traditionally Catholic, especially Paris, with several protestant Huguenot uprisings occurring throughout its history. Even the French Royals were caught on either side of the debate, with the protestant King Henry IV converting to Catholicism because “Paris was worth a mass”.
So needless to say, the French bourgeois is usually Catholic, even if he/she may not be as religious today as in the past.
The bourgeois tradition in France is to include a name from each side of the family, so these sorts of compound names are common. Being catholic, the name Marie for the Virgin Mary is often included in names of both boys and girls.
Another sign of noblesse and ancienne bourgeoisie is last names that include “de” in them like “de Villiers”. It means “from” such and such town, and usually indicates a name that can be traced back generations. To put it another way, the peasants couldn’t read or write, and so could not trace their name back like the bourgeois could.
If you enjoyed that post, you may like to read more about living in Paris. Is it really all what it is cracked up to be, if you are living there instead of visiting? (Spoiler alert: perhaps not.) A bientôt!