French Culture

The French are immensely proud of their culture. It has been shaped by major historical events, geography and foreign influences leading to France becoming an important global place of high culture and art.

The Language

French has been on a decline since the Second World War and has seen its stature in the world diminish as English became the dominant international language. Despite this the French are highly protective of their language and has taken measures to protect the ‘purity’ of it.  Action has been taken by the government in order to promote French culture and the French Language. For instance, there exists a system of subsidies and preferential loans for supporting French cinema. The Toubon law, from the name of the conservative culture minister who promoted it, makes it mandatory to use French in advertisements directed to the general public.

French Holidays

There are several important annual holidays which are specific to France:

All Saints Day (vacances de la Toussaint)-

Despite being called ‘day’ this holiday in fact lasts for a week and a half, starting near the end of October. This holiday is a remnant from when France was officially a Catholic nation with the large number of Catholics celebrating the lives of all of the Saints.

Christmas (Vacances de Noel)

Just like back in the UK, Christmas is celebrated for two weeks in France with the holiday ending after New year’s Day.

Labour Day

Labour Day is a holiday to celebrate the economic and social achievements of workers. May 1st is the date this holiday is held traditionally on.

Bastille Day

Bastille Day is celebrated on the 14th of July each year and sees the French military perform a series of marches and parades to commemorate the French revolution.

Remembrance Day

This holiday commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France at the end of the First World War on November 11th.

Modern France is the result of centuries of nation building and the acquisition and incorporation of a number of historical provinces and its former empire into its geographical and political structure. These regions all evolved with their own specific cultural and linguistic traditions in fashion religion, regional language, family structure, food, leisure activities, etc.

There are huge differences in life style, socioeconomic status and world view between Paris and the provinces. The French often use the expression “la France profonde ” (“Deep France”, similar to “heartlands”) to designate the profoundly “French” aspects of provincial towns, village life and rural agricultural culture, which escape the hegemony of Paris. Another expression, ‘terroir’ is a French term originally used for wine and coffee to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon these products. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment (especially the “soil”) has had on the growth of the product. The use of the term has since been generalized to talk about many cultural products.

Despite the end of the days of Empire, France still consists of a number of overseas territories comprised of its former colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana in the Caribbean and other territory in the Indian Ocean.

Etiquette and customs

The handshake is a common form of greeting.

Friends may greet each other by lightly kissing on the cheeks, once on the left cheek and once on the right cheek.

First names are reserved for family and close friends. Wait until invited before using someone’s first name.

You are expected to say ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ (good morning and good evening) with the honorific title Monsieur or Madame when entering a shop and ‘au revoir’ (good-bye) when leaving.

If you live in an apartment building, it is polite to greet your neighbours with the same appellation.

Gift giving

Flowers should be given in odd numbers but not 13, which is considered unlucky.

Some older French retain old-style prohibitions against receiving certain flowers: White lilies or chrysanthemums as they are used at funerals; red carnations as they symbolize bad will; any white flowers as they are used at weddings.

Prohibitions about flowers are not generally followed by the young. When in doubt, it is always best to err on the side of conservatism.

If you give wine, make sure it is of the highest quality you can afford. The French appreciate their wines.

Gifts are usually opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

If you are invited to a French house for dinner:

Arrive on time. Under no circumstances should you arrive more than 10 minutes later than invited without telephoning to explain you have been detained.

The further south you go in the country, the more flexible time is.

If invited to a large dinner party, especially in Paris, send flowers the morning of the occasion so that they may be displayed that evening.

Dress well. The French are fashion conscious and their version of casual is not as relaxed as in many western countries.

Table manners:

Table manners are Continental — the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.

If there is a seating plan, you may be directed to a particular seat.

Do not begin eating until the hostess says ‘bon appetit’.

If you have not finished eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife.

Do not rest your elbows on the table, although your hands should be visible and not in your lap.

Finish everything on your plate.

Do not cut salad with a knife and fork. Fold the lettuce on to your fork.

Peel and slice fruit before eating it.

Leave your wineglass nearly full if you do not want more.

Relationships and Communication

French business behaviour emphasizes courtesy and a degree of formality.

Mutual trust and respect is required to get things done.

Trust is earned through proper behaviour.

Creating a wide network of close personal business alliances is very important.

If you do not speak French, an apology for not knowing their language may aid in developing a relationship.

It is always a good idea to learn a few key phrases, since it demonstrates an interest in a long-term relationship.

The way a French person communicates is often predicated by their social status, education level, and which part of the country they were raised.

In business, the French often appear extremely direct because they are not afraid of asking probing questions.

Written communication is formal. Secretaries often schedule meetings and may be used to relay information from your French business colleagues.