French Culture: 50+ facts and tidbits from France

French Culture: 50+ facts and tidbits from France

It can be hard to get the feel of a place just by looking at the plain facts. The allure of France has always been in its cultural attractions. For centuries French culture has attracted people the world over with its art, lifestyle, fashion, museums, architecture, and of course, much much more.

While there are plenty of interesting facts about its history, government, and the state, it is the country’s cultural charms that make France the top tourist destination in the world.

So let’s dive into what makes France so special, shall we? Allons-y!



A. French Language

1. French is the 2nd most studied language in the world, after English. It is estimated that over 300 million people around the world speak French.

2. However, when French became the official language of France in 1539, only 20% of the French people actually spoke French. Instead they spoke their own regional languages, like Occitan, Breton, etc. French King François I banned the use of many regional languages and insisted that all official business be carried out in French.

3. Today, French is one of the official languages of the Olypmpics, the United Nations, NAFTA, NATO, OECD and many other international organizations.

4. Unlike English, the official rules of the French language are decided by an institution called the Académie Française. Created in 1635, it is responsible for defining French language dictionary, grammar and punctuation.

In addition, there is there is an alphabet soup of institutions like the DGLFLF and the CILF to defend the French language. (Belgium, Quebec and other francophone-speaking regions have their own french language defenders.)

5. English and French may both use the Latin alphabet, but the French writing style is quite different as are several punctuation marks. From guillemets, to commas and periods being inversed, you can read about the differences in French punctuation here.

B. Books

1. With famous authors like Victor Hugo (Les Miserables and Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince), France has a rich literary heritage. The Petit Prince is one of the highest-selling children’s books of all time in France, and all three books have been turned into award-winning movies.

2. French authors have more Literature Nobel Prizes than those of any other nation, 15 to date. Authors are treated like stars in France, invited onto talk shows, and regularly feted. France also has a large comic book industry, producing some of the biggest names in comic books like Asterix and Obelix and many others.

3. Annually there are several Literature Prizes that are awarded in France to top French authors. The biggest of these prizes is the Prix Goncourt handed out each November to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.

C. Museums

1. France wouldn’t be France without its world-class museums. In Paris alone, there are an estimated 206 museums et 1016 art galleries, making it an important part of French culture.

2. The Louvre Museum in Paris is the most visited museum in the world, with around 10 million visitors per year. Despite its size, less than 10% of its treasures are said to be actually on display, including at two satellite museums, the Louvre-Lens and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

3. The Musée D’Orsay and Centre Pompidou in Paris are also in the top 10 of most visited museums in the world.

4. Across France, there are another 1240 official “Musées de France“, as attributed by the Ministry of Culture.

☞ READ MORE: Paris: 24+ Fun Facts from the City of Lights

D. Art

1. Some of the most famous international artists in the world have lived in France. From Dutch painter Van Gogh who lived in Provence, to Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali in Paris, France has always been a country to attract the world’s best.

2. With plenty of renowned French artists like Monet, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Gaugin and more, you can see why the French have so many museums to house these works of art.

3. Italian Leonardo da Vinci also made his way to France under the tutelage of François I, after fleeing Italy. He brought with him the Mona Lisa, which is why it resides at the Louvre Museum today. Along with art and scientific works, he is also believed to have designed the famous Château de Chambord and its double helix staircase. Da Vinci is buried in Amboise in the Loire Valley.

Formal and informal table settings in France
Formal and informal table settings in France

E. Food and Dining

1. French cuisine was inscribed by UNESCO in 2010 as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature.

Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. 

UNESCO

2. In general, French meals are very long. Depending on the occasion, there can be multiple starters, mains, cheese and dessert courses all in one meal. There is a specific arrangement to follow, with plates and glasses being swapped out depending on the dish that came before.

3. The Art of the Table is highly important in French culture, along with table manners. Forks and knifes must be used in most cases, rather than eating by hand, and there are etiquette rules to everything from drinking wine to cutting cheese.

4. The emphasis on good food, starts as early as preschool, with schools serving organic meals and banning items like ketchup.

You can read more French food facts here.

Brigitte Bardot at 1958 film festival
Brigitte Bardot at 1958 film festival

F. Film and Cinema

1. Pioneers in the world of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinématographe (an early motion-picture camera) and their film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in Paris in 1895 is considered by many historians as the official birth of cinematography.

2. Since then there has been a strong tradition of films and movies in France. France is the most successful film industry in Europe with around 300 films produced per year.

3. With international stars like director Luc Besson, actor Jean Dujardin, and actresses Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, there are many successful French artists who have crossed into Hollywood.

But it was the incontournables like Brigitte Bardot, Gérard Depardieu, and Catherine Deneuve who broke through and paved the way for new French stars of today, like Vincent Cassel, Eva Green and many more.

☞ READ MORE: Quiz: How many French celebrities can you spot?

G. Music

1. As the saying goes, “music makes the world go round” and in France, it is no different. The earliest known sound recording device in the world, the phonautograph, was patented in France by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1857.

2. France is the 5th largest market by value in the world. From Edith Piaf to Serge Gainsbourg, French musicians have become renowned around the world.

You can find the top French songs that changed pop culture here.

French fashion logos

H. Fashion

1. With top French fashion houses like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Yves St. Laurent, Paris has become the fashion capital of the world. There are over 300 fashion shows held in France annually, with over €150 billion in direct turnover.

2. The term “haute couture“, meaning “high fashion” refers to these stylish and expensive fashion houses, while “prêt-a-porter” means “ready to wear”.

3. The first fashion magazine ever published, was created in France in 1678, called “Le Mercure Galant”.

4. France is also the country that invented the jean, or rather denim from “de Nimes” in the south of France at the end of the 19th century.

5. Another big item that was invented in France was the bikini, which was created in May 1946 by Parisian fashion designer Jacques Heim.

6. Interestingly, while bikinis may have been all tha rage, it was not until 2013 that a law banning Parisian women from wearing pants was finally overturned. The law that was imposed in 1800, was never enforced, thankfully!

7. These days, French style tends to be quite pared down and minimalist. French people prefer understated outfits, with 1 or 2 items that pop. Particular emphasis on cut and fit is most appreciated.

The French “je ne sais quoi” is still going strong however, with even still French women still attempting to explain that elusive concept.



I. Shopping

1. In terms of shopping, part of the French culture involves gearing up for a twice a year event known as “Les Soldes”. Sales are not allowed at any random time of the year but in particular designated weeks: the Winter and summer sales period.

2. We should note that France is not reputed for its customer service. The Customer is not king, and stores will not bend over backward to assist. Under French law however, most goods have a 7-14 day return policy.

3. Malls which were not popular in France in the past, are now starting to catch on. The largest malls in France today are La Defense 4temps-Cnit mall on the outskirts of Paris, and Part-Dieu mall in Lyon.

However, much opposition remains at the local level to these big box stores, with a lot of towns preferring to keep the small-town charm of tiny boutiques on cobblestone streets.

J. Greeting People

1. Saying “Bonjour”, meaning hello, is a very important part of greeting people in France. A firm handshake is appropriate in professional settings.

2. French people will greet family and friends with kissing on the cheek as a greeting. Cheek kisses can be made between people of any gender, depending on how close they are.

Each region has a “standard” for how many kisses to perform, which is anywhere from 1 to 4. (It does not matter which cheek is first, although most people have a habit of the left cheek first.)

Illustration of how many French bises (cheek kisses) to do when saying bonjour in different parts of France

3. Along with greetings, the florist industry is quite significant in France, with French people regularly buying flowers for family and friends. It is estimated over 22 million bouquets are sold every year, in a country of 66 million.

K. Inventors

There have been several revolutionary items invented in France, among them:

French InventionInventor
Metric systemAcademy of Sciences of Paris
Stethoscope Physician René Laennec
Pencil sharpenerMathematician Bernard Lassimonne
PasteurizationBiologist Louis Pasteur
Canned foodNicholas Appert
Underwater oxygen tankJacques-Yves Cousteau
MontgolfierJoseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier
Braille languageLouis Braille
Hairdryer Alexandre Godefroy

The French government gives many grants for research and development, so this is an area that the country excels in.

L. Religion

1. Many wars had been fought in France over the centuries between the Catholics and the protestant Huguenots. The fighting ended when King Henri IV (a protestant with a Catholic wife) agreed to convert to Catholicism, saying that “Paris vaut bien une messe“, meaning “Paris is worth a mass (to stop the fighting”.

He signed the Edict of Nantes, giving Protestants the freedom of conscience to pray as they wished.

2. Today, France is officially a secular république, with much emphasis being placed on laicité.

Laicité is the neutrality of the State and imposes the equality of all before the law without distinction of religion or belief.

French Government

The concept of laicity arose after the French Revolution, after the church was assumed to be an instrument of the Royalty and nobility.

3. The French revolution brought with it the end of ecclesiastical privileges and the affirmation of universal principles, including freedom of conscience and equal rights expressed by the “Declaration de Droits des Hommes” (The Declaration of the Rights of Man). To enforce this principle, it is illegal in France to count statistics based on race or religion.

4. While France may be officially secular, legend has it that Mary Magdalene is buried in France.

Haussmannian architecture in Paris
Haussmannian architecture in Paris

M. Architecture

1. Tourists may revel in the beauty of French architecture, but French people have usually resisted any type of change to their cities and towns.

The Haussmannian buildings in Paris that were designed by Baron Haussmann were initially detested, as many original dwellings were deemed too close together and were destroyed.

Instead, new elegant avenues like the Champs Elysées were built along which were constructed these now world-famous exquisitely decorated buildings.

2. Other buildings like the Eiffel Tower, Centre Pompidou and the glass pyramid of the Louvre were also detested when they were constructed. Parisians slowly got used to them however, and these days their beauty is much appreciated.

N. School

French schools emphasize debating skills and philosophy from an early age. In order to obtain their BAC diploma (the French version of the American SAT), students must answer a philosophy exam.

Other interesting differences are the emphasis on poetry and writing in cursive. You can read more about the French education system here.

O. Privacy

1. French people in general consider privacy very important. In the workplace as well as in polite company, there are certain topics like money and one’s personal life that are reserved for family and friends.

2. In addition, social media is not as widely used to share personal information as in other countries. Hootsuite and the Digital Marketing Institute reported that on average, French people spend 40% less time on Facebook than in the U.S. And when they do, the Pew Research Center notes that it is usually for a news source, not socializing.

3. The privacy of children is especially important, with French law stating that if you as a parent post a picture of your child, and your child later opposes it, they can sue you. “A photo posted of a person, without their consent, has a penalty of up to 1-year imprisonment and a €45000 fine.”

P. Paris vs. the Rest of France

1. Every French person will tell you that Paris is not like the rest of France. French people prefer to think of Parisians with their nose up in the air, rich and chic, and impossible to get along with. French protests such as the Gilets Jaunes are usually about poor country-siders protesting against the government as well as wealthy Parisians.

In addition, the Parisienne stereotype of being thin, wearing dark clothes, and impossibly stylish is just a stereotype. But it is debunked even faster once you are out in French countryside.

2. And if you are from Marseille in the South of France, you likely have a thought or two about Parisians. The traditional rival to the French capital, French Kings based in Paris have always mistrusted the Marseillais, and vice versa.

In 1660, French King Louis XIV built the Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, but famously had his cannons pointed AT the city, instead of to defend it.  Today, the rivalry still remains, in sports but also between politicians. You can read more about the Marseille – Paris rivalry here.

Q. Sex and Nudity

1. Sex is not considered a taboo as in some cultures, and jokes and references to sex abound in film, books, and music. It is not necessary to wait until marriage for sex, and in some instances, couples getting married in France will even be asked for proof by their local townhall, that they live together to prove that it is not a “fake marriage”.

2. Nudity however is on the decline, with the 1960s French trend of going topless on the beach not being as widespread these days. People have started to understand the effects of sun damage and cultural norms make it less important to “not have tan lines”.

You can read more about sex and nudity in France here.

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And with that, are there any other French cultural habits that you have noticed? Comment below and let me know.

A bientôt!

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. French Culture: 50+ facts and tidbits from France

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