With language and a literary tradition at the heart of French culture, it’s no surprise that there are many famous French writers out there. The French have long considered that there is beauty in the written word, and that belief has birthed some of the most admired authors and literary figures in the world.
Unlike English, there are official rules to the French language. An institution called the Académie Française was created in 1635 and charged with the responsibility to define French language dictionary, grammar, and punctuation.
And given France’s tumultuous history over the centuries, there has been plenty of inspiration its writers. From philosophical writings, novels, plays and even science fiction, there is a bit of everything to please even the most discerning reader.
These French authors have been translated into dozens of languages, so I have linked to their bilingual and english editions of the books below. So let’s take a look at some of the most famous French writers of all time, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)
One of France’s most famous writers has to be Victor Hugo. With a career spanning over 60 years, he wrote everything from poetry to satire, critical essays and historical odysseys.
His most popular works that have been translated into over 60 languages have to be Les Miserables and Hunchback of Notre Dame (which was not intended to be a children’s tale). He was also renowned for his poetry collections, such as Les Contemplations (The Contemplations) and La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages).
But Victor Hugo did more than just write fictional novels. He was also a passionate supporter of republicanism after the Revolution, and served in politics as a deputy in the Assemblée Nationale, as well as a senator.
He gave several speeches to end poverty, as well as to establish universal suffrage (for women) and free education for all children. His advocacy in the 19th century to abolish the death penalty became renowned internationally. For his works and service to the French nation, he is buried in the Panthéon in Paris.
2. Alexandre Dumas (1802 – 1870)
His real name was Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, and he was born in Haiti as the grandson of a French Marquis and an enslaved woman of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. His father was considered mixed-race and had to be legally freed. “Dumas” is the name of his grandmother, Marie-Cessette Dumas.
Because his grandfather was a Marquis, Dumas had access to aristocratic circles and worked for King Louis Philippe, the last of the French Kings as well as being involved in state affairs.
Beyond his work for the French government, he wrote many novels in a variety of genres. His novels became so popular that they were soon translated into English and other languages.
3. Voltaire (1694 – 1778)
Going by a single nom de plume (pen name) is Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet. A prolific writer, he produced works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and even scientific expositions.
It was the “Age of Enlightenment”, with French writers like Voltaire were openly discussing concepts like personal happiness and civil liberties.
Voltaire produced more than 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets, producing this quantity of work while drinking 50-75 cups of coffee 50–72 a day. He died at 83, and is buried at the Pantheon.
4. Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850)
French writer Honoré de Balzac is most well known for his opus La Comédie Humaine. While he wrote plenty of other novels and plays, it is his observation of the human condition in la Comédie Humaine that really put him on the map.
Rather than a novel, it is a collection of short stories containing 91 finished works, including a variety of stories, novels, and essays.
It is the intrigue of the various aspects of life in France that makes for interesting reading, with Balzac tackling even topics considered “unsuitable” to provide real insights.
The stories cover a broad range of topics from money, power, women, and society, set in the period after the French Revolution.
Although Balzac was already a famous author at the time, the stories took a while to be translated into English, since it was considered improper for Victorian audiences in England.
5. George Sand (1804 – 1876)
One of the most popular female writers in France in her lifetime is Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand.
Choosing to wear male attire in public, she was a huge advocate for women’s rights and the working class. She even started her own newspaper, and her political writings brought her much attention. (She also openly had many famous lovers, including musician Frederic Chopin and actress Marie Dorval.)
6. Emile Zola (1840 – 1902)
French Novelist Émile Zola wrote many short stories, essays and books. However, his most famous work is probably a newspaper article called “J’accuse“, meaning “I accuse”.
It was written in defense of a Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused of being a spy. Anti-semitism was rampant, and Dreyfus was put on trial, court-martialled, and convicted without much evidence.
Émile Zola risked his career to write a passionate defence of Dreyfus, and the Dreyfus affair would deeply divide France. (The Dreyfus affair is still well-known today, it had such an impact on French culture.)
Eventually the truth came out, that he was framed and Zola was hailed as a hero for his passionate intervention. (Dreyfus too was later awarded the French Legion d’honneur.) You can read more about Dreyfus and other famous French people here.
Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902. His most famous works include Les Mystères de Marseille (Mysteries of Marseille), Thérèse Raquin, and Rougon-Macquart.
7. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900 – 1944)
The incontournable of French books always has to be Le Petit Prince. And the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is another one of the notable French writers honored at the Panthéon.
At first glance, le Petit Prince seems like a book for small children. However, once you start to read it, the layers of wisdom that the book doles out are worthy of reading for adults and kids alike.
Saint-Exupéry was a famed aviator before becoming a writer. He joined the Free France air force during World War II, and disappeared while on a reconnaissance mission from Corsica over the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944.
These days the Petit Prince is one of the highest-selling books of all time in France.
8. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)
French Writer Jean-Paul Sartre was philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and political activist.
Born in Paris, he was also the partner of another famous French writer-philosopher and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. He and Simone met in university, and lived in Paris under the German Reich occupation during World War II.
A liberal with sympathies to the Left, his famous books include novel La Nausée (Nausea) and the Age of Reason. He also wrote extensively post-war about the working class and neglected minority groups, namely French Jews and black people.
He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (which he initially attempted to refuse).
9. Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)
French writer and female activist Simone de Beauvoir became famous for her writings on both feminist theory and feminist existentialism.
France would grant women the right to vote during her lifetime in 1946, due to the advocacy work of writers and philosophers like her.
Among her most famous books was the 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and contemporary feminism, as well as The Coming of Age. She would win France’s top prize for writers, the Prix Goncourt in 1954.
She would live with Jean-Paul Sartre for much of her life, but they did not have children. They had an open relationship, and Beauvoir was known to be bisexual. They are buried together in the Cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.
10. Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)
One of the most famous French writers, Albert Camus was born in French Algeria to Pieds Noirs parents, eventually studying philosophy at the University of Algiers.
By the time he made it to in Paris, the Germans had invaded France during World War II. Camus joined the French Resistance where he served as editor-in-chief at Combat, an outlawed newspaper.
With multiple marriages and affairs under his belt, he is attributed to the romantic quote: “This is love, giving it one’s all, sacrificing everything without hope of it being returned.”
11. Molière (1622 – 1673)
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is better known by his stage name Molière, one of the greatest French writers the country has ever produced.
A playwright, actor, and poet, his works are regarded as an extraordinary contribution to the French language and world literature. His works include comedies, farces, tragi-comedies, and more.
The renowned Comédie Française theatre in Paris has performed more of his works than any other playwright in history.
12. Jules Verne (1828 – 1905)
If you enjoy science fiction, French novelist Jules Verne is your guy. You may have heard of a few of his titles like Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20000 Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater, and of course Around the world in 80 days.
Capturing the imagination of young and old, his works have an extraordinary ability to transport you to another time and place. Even reading the books today, there is a sense of wonder at what could be possible.
In addition to his novels, he wrote numerous plays, short stories, autobiographies, poetry, and even songs. His work has been adapted for film and television, as well as for comic books, theater, opera, and video games.
13. Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)
One of the most influential authors of the 20th century, Marcel Proust was born in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. As such, many of his writings are about large societal changes, particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, as occurred in France during that period.
His most famous work is In Search of Lost Time which contains seven volumes totalling around 3,200 pages and features more than 2000 different characters.
Proust died before he was able to complete the drafts and proofs of the final volumes, and the last three books in the set were edited by his brother Robert and published posthumously.
14. Edmond de Goncourt (1822 – 1896)
Working with his brother Jules, Edmond de Goncourt was a prolific writer, with many works such as Histoire de la Société Française pendant la Révolution (History of French society during the Revolution) and Portraits Intimes du XVIIIe Siècle (Intimate portraits of the 18th century).
After his brother Jules died, Edmond founded the Académie Goncourt in his honor, one of the most prestigious institutions in France today. With 10 judges, the Académie Goncourt awards every December the Prix Goncourt to writers who have produced works in the French language.
Edmond continued to produce works after Jules died, including La Fille Elisa, and Chérie.
15. Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814)
One French author who is perhaps more famous than infamous is Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade.
With a vast number of short stories, novels and anonymous tracts about his “libertine habits in the bedroom”, the Marquis de Sade was considered a public menace.
On July 14, 1789, when revolutionaries stormed into the fort at Bastille Saint-Antoine during the French revolution, there were only 7 prisoners there, among them the infamous Marquis de Sade. He had already been held there for over 10 years, without any specific charge.
In fact, a good majority of his works were written in prison. His writings continue to fascinate and repel even today. You can read his one of his most famous works 120 days here.
The Marquis would survive the revolution, but would return in and out of prison several times over the rest of his life.
16. André Malraux (1901 – 1976)
Malraux’s novel La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate) won the Prix Goncourt in 1933.
During World War II, he joined the French army and later the Resistance. In 1944, he was captured by German secret service but managed to survive.
After the war, Malraux was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de guerre by the French government and the Distinguished Service Order by the British.
He was appointed by President Charles de Gaulle as information minister (1945–46) and later as France’s first cultural affairs minister (1959–1969). He continued to write however, with one of his popular books after the war being Les Voix du Silence (The Voices of Silence).
17. Marguerite Duras (1914 – 1996)
Marguerite Germaine Marie Donnadieu, known as Marguerite Duras, has been one of France’s top 20th century writers with much international acclaim.
A novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker, her script for the film Hiroshima mon amour (1959) earned her an Oscar nomination.
She was born in French Indochina (now Vietnam), when France occupied the country, and many of her works reflected her dual upbringing.
18. Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703)
You may be surprised to know that Puss in Boots, aka Chat Botté, is French. Written by famous French author Charles Perrault in the 16th century, his other book titles include:
- Mother Goose
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Cinderella (adapted version from Grimm Brothers)
- Sleeping Beauty (adapted version from Grimm Brothers)
Charles Perrault worked as a secretary at the Château de Breteuil outside of Paris, where some of his most famous works were written.
19. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786 – 1859)
Born in the age of the French Revolution, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was considered one of the top poets of her time.
With rather dark and depressing themes, her poetry reflected her troubled life. Some of her most famous works include the classic poems:
- Les Roses de Saadi (1860; The roses of Saadi)
- Pauvres Fleurs (1839; “Poor Flowers”),
- Les Pleurs (1833; “The Tears”),
- Bouquets et prières (1843; “Bouquets and Prayers”)
She was also an actress and singer, as well as winning the Prix Lambert for literature and philosophy. Marceline is the only female writer included in the famous Les Poètes maudits anthology published by Paul Verlaine in 1884.
20. Nostradamus (1503 – 1566)
Notradamus may not be a writer in the traditional sense, but it was his book of prophecies that have him still recognized as a household name. Born in St. Remy de Provence, the legendary foreseer Nostradamus, was actually a medical doctor.
He was born into a Jewish family that converted due to religious tensions, and had studied to become a doctor in nearby Avignon and Montpellier. It was a good career choice that was quite critical as the plague was rampant in his time.
Given the fears of the era and his study of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and the occult, he wrote his famous book “Les Prophéties (The Prophecies). His books and writings would bring him to the attention of French Queen Catherine de’ Medici, who became one of Nostradamus’s greatest admirers.
With his writing hinting at unnamed threats to the royal family, she summoned him to Paris to explain them and to draw up horoscopes for her children. She would go on to make him part of her entourage.
After his death, his rather vague predictions came to befall Catholic Queen Catherine. She would lose all her sons in short order, and France would fall into a civil and religious war between Catholics and Protestants.
Over 3 million French people are believed to have died in that period, making it one of the deadliest religious wars in Europe. And with that, Nostradamus’s reputation was sealed. You can watch a movie about his prophecies here.
21. Jacques Prévert (1900 – 1977)
Poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert wrote a number of screenplays, but it is his poetry that are still taught in French schools today.
Along with collaborations with the French artist Marc Chagall some of his most famous works include:
- Paroles (Words) (1946),
- Spectacle (1951),
- La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) (1955),
- Histoires (Stories) (1963),
- Fatras (1971),
- Choses et autres (Things and Others) (1973).
His poem Les feuilles mortes written in 1945 at the end of WWII, would go on to become an internationally renowned song, famous all over the world.
French renditions of Les Feuilles Mortes have been performed by Yves Montand and Édith Piaf, while the most famous English version was titled “Autumn Leaves”, and was sung by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to find out more about my selection of classic French books for beginners. A bientôt!