One of the cornerstone experiences of anyone who finds themselves abroad is the experience of offending someone over something you thought nothing of at all. The vast majority of the time, people understand cultural differences are to blame, and everyone can just laugh it off in the end, but speaking for myself, I do everything I can not to make those mistakes again.
But sometimes you can’t help but notice when another culture takes something far more seriously than you ever learned to in your own. From grammar to gruyere, these are the five things I’ve noticed French people take very seriously.
1. The French Language
It’s no secret that European countries tend to be snobs about the language that came from within their boundaries. England is protective of Shakespeare, as is Italy of Machiavelli, and even Russia seems sometimes protective of Dostoyevsky. But the French take it to a whole new level.
Case in point: The Académie Française.
The Académie Française is an organization most recently put in place in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte as an institution to protect and preserve the French language, more specifically the regulation of French grammar, spelling, and literature.
If you’re thinking, “Huh, this sounds kind of like if the Hollywood foreign press went institutionalized,” you would be absolutely right. The Académie is composed of 40 absolute French language snobs who represent a little of the worst and a little of the best there is to offer in the French language. Historically, the Académie has included in its membership writers like Victor Hugo, philosophers like Voltaire, and a number of other lawyers, scientists, politicians, and even senior Roman Catholic clergymen.
And who better to be the head of the Académie than the President of France himself?
The group deals with things as they come, trying to preserve the French language as best as possible while also allowing for it to change and evolve. It recognizes the threat of anglicisms as a real one, and so has in some instances literally invented official words for inventions (one such example being the word ordinateur for computer).
More recently, the Académie held emergency sessions to determine if Covid would be considered masculine or feminine. (They decided it was feminine, so I guess we can all sleep a little more soundly knowing it’s la Covid instead of le Covid.)
2. Separation of Church and State
French separation of church and state, much like that in the US, isn’t perfect at all, and there are plenty of loopholes and overlooked exceptions to the rules. However, compared to what is often seen in the US (for example, “In God We Trust” on the back of much of the currency), it’s significantly different.
Though many French cathedrals and basilicas are technically the property of the state, they are seen as historical sites, rather than places of worship, for the purposes of state funding (obviously it is recognized that these places are still active parts of religion). Additionally, the institutions that run the churches are in no way allowed to be subsidized by the state at all. Similar to the US, churches don’t pay tax, but they also aren’t allowed to run programs that are funded by the state.
The other main way this separation manifests itself is within schools. Students in public schools aren’t allowed to wear religious symbols, and though the law is relatively vague on this, it is generally accepted that this includes pretty much anything distinctively representing a religion. The biggest source of debate for this has surrounded the wearing of hijabs, but students who wear large crosses, headscarves, or yarmulkes could also face being sent home.
3. Bread, Cheese, and Wine
I’ve touched on this briefly before, but there are about a million different rules when it comes to how to eat your bread and cheese, and exactly what kind of wine you should pair it all with.
When it comes to bread, or more specifically baguette, the rules are relatively straightforward. Don’t cut baguette with a knife, set baguette wherever you want (but it had better not be upside down), and the guy who buys it, tries it.
The real ordeal is that these sort of defy the regular rules of table warfare. Typically one should only try to divide bread with a knife, they should keep their bread on the plate, and especially in France where eating in the streets is considered a bit rude, having a big chunk of bread taken out doesn’t seem like it should be okay, but it is.
For cheeses, it gets more complicated. Some of the rules are pretty mainstream – move from mild cheeses to sharper or funkier ones on a cheeseboard so that you don’t get quickly overwhelmed and lose all ability to enjoy a mild cheese.
But when it comes to getting a piece of cheese, you had better cut it right. A round piece of cheese should never be cut in any way other than triangles, because the middle of a wheel of cheese is where it ferments the most, and where it tastes the best. Similarly, if you’re taking a slice from a wedge of cheese, take more from the outside, and make sure not to cut off the “nose” of the cheese. For rectangles and cylinders of cheese, parallel slices are acceptable.
But never is it acceptable to ever spread a cheese on a piece of bread or a cracker like one would nutella or mayo. You will likely be met with a sarcastic and dry comparison of the cheese to butter, and no one really wins.
I really don’t know much about French wines other than that the famous appellations mean that professional sommeliers have tasted the wine and decided that it was worthy of tasting. People like some wines and don’t like others, but if you get one that says “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” people at least can’t complain that you didn’t try.
4. The Right to Protest
It’s hard to say exactly where this virtue comes from. In some ways, deep division in France has always existed in many ways, and so it might make sense through that lens that people are reminded of their right to voice their opinion. On the other hand, some say it’s a historical imperative left over from the French revolution, that displeasure should be voiced at all costs. Regardless of the reason, the French know how to protest, and they know how to do it right.
It isn’t at all uncommon to see protestors at Trocadero, nor is it a fluke to see the protesting at République, or at the Notre-Dame, or really anywhere else in Paris. These protests are sometimes composed of only a dozen or so people, and sometimes they take their numbers in the thousands, and they almost always include music, speakers, and even food sometimes.
That’s not to mention the fantastic protest signs that you can see at these things sometimes. French is literally the language of double entendre, so play on words within protest signs is a fantastic tool that I always enjoy laughing at.
One of the first protest signs I saw was a discarded sign in a trash can that read, “Macron, tu descends?” It was later explained to me that the sign was a reference to an ultra-cheesy rap music video from the 90’s called “C’est Ton Destin.” Glorious.
Another I once read translates a little better. It was a protest about pay inequality, and the sign said something to the effect of, “Look at your rolex, see? It’s time for change.”
While in the US we often see dinner as the central meal of the day, for many French families it is actually lunch that is found to be more important, at least during the week. It’s no secret that the French like to take their time with their food, so it isn’t exactly shocking that they take an extended lunch break, but most of the time people really go all out for it.
In many places, school children get out of school for a period of time for lunch, usually a couple of hours. The idea is that the kids can go home with their parents and eat, and then go back to school without missing a beat. (After having eaten lunch at French public school, I can confidently say don’t worry about the kids who don’t go home for lunch. They get taken care of perfectly fine.)
For employees that aren’t able to go home for lunch, most employers are required to either feed their employees a quality lunch, or give them a monthly stipend that is dedicated to having lunch. This practice tends to be more relevant for white collar jobs.
All of this massive importance placed on lunch means that from noon to 2pm, expect for everything to be shut down. You might be able to peek your head into a grocery store, but other than that your only other bet would be a restaurant, where you would buy your lunch. Banks close, offices close, post offices close, everything closes for that two hour window.
The French might be serious about these things (that admittedly sometimes seem ridiculous), but if in doubt, admit you’re a confused foreigner and most people will clear things right up.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing this post and subscribing to the mailing list for The Road and the Tree. You’ll receive mail alerts whenever a new post is published, and it keeps me motivated to keep writing!