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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

From cheese and garlic to berets and sex, taxes and striking, France is heavily loaded with cultural stereotypes - and most of them are only partly accurate. 

Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb.
Rugby fans dress up in stereotypical French garb. Read our myth-busting guide to French clichés. (Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD / AFP)

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, groundskeeper Willie describes the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” – an accurate description or unfair stereotyping?

Cheese obsessed 

Wartime leader and later president Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”

It would be wrong to deny that the French are cheese obsessed – France consumes more cheese per capita and has more varieties of cheese than any other country in the world. 

More than 40 percent of French people eat cheese every day. During the lockdown of 2020, many turned towards cheese as a source of comfort and raclette ranks as the country’s favourite dish

Surprisingly however, France was only the second largest producer of cheese (by weight) in the EU last year, behind Germany. 

Surrender monkeys

Monkeys probably isn’t the right word. Technically speaking, our species are classified by biologists as great apes – but we’ll let that one slide. 

But great apes with an inclination to surrender? Now we need to set the record straight. 

Aside from when they surrendered to the Nazis in WWII and refused to back the US in the Iraq War, France has overall been a military powerhouse.

Perhaps the golden age of the French military was under Napoleon who controlled large swathes of Europe. France also once held a vast colonial empire covering lands from Southeast Asia, to North and West Africa, to the Caribbean. 

Today, it spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001.  

It’s hard to quantify cowardliness but if you’re looking for a country unwilling to get its hands dirty, we suggest you pop over the border to Switzerland.

Bare boobs at the beach

In the past, French women were thought to be pre-disposed to going topless at the beach. But various studies show that this practice is in decline. Not only that but France pales in comparison to other European countries. 

An IFOP survey in 2019 found that only 22 percent of French women have ever gone topless at the beach – a huge decline from 43 percent in 1984. 

In 2019, women in Spain (48 percent) and Germany (34 percent) were more likely to have ditched the bikini top. 

French women were however more likely to go topless than those in the UK or the USA. 

Berets 

Ask someone to draw you ‘a Frenchman’ and he will probably be wearing a beret. But in truth, this item of clothing has largely gone out of fashion in most of the country. 

These flat, floppy hats, typically made from wool, were very popular among Pyrenean peasants in late Middle Ages, although they may have been worn even earlier than that. 

In the 18th century, berets became a popular accessory for French artists, before seeing a renaissance in the 20th century, when stars of the silver screen and movie directors adopted the look.

Since the end of WW2, the beret has died out in many parts of the country. You will likely find some artists wearing them in artsy quarters like Montmartre in Paris and old men wearing them in the French countryside.

Berets also remain popular in the Basque country in southwest France, where locals are proud of their distinctive béret basque design. 

Garlic lovers

Excessive garlic consumption is another French culinary stereotype worth kicking up a stink about.

While garlic genuinely does help snails taste better, France is far from being the biggest consumer. China dwarfs France in per capita garlic consumption. 

India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Russia, South Korea and Brazil are among the countries to consume significantly more garlic than France. 

And on the subject of allium vegetables, you will never see someone walking down the street in France with a string of onions around their neck. This image comes from the French onion salesmen who would cycle around Britain in the 19th and early 20th century selling their goods – a practice that has now been abandoned. 

Smokers 

French people do smoke – but less than you think. 

A quarter of French adults aged 18-75 said they smoked every day in 2020 and the overall smoking rate (including “social smokers”) stands at 34.6 percent. 

The French do smoke more than most of their neighbours and the smoking rate is certainly higher than in the UK (19.2 percent), Ireland (23.6 percent) and the United States (25.1 percent). 

But these numbers have been steadily falling for years and they are far from the heaviest smokers in Europe. Bulgaria, Latvia, Serbia, Greece and a host of other southern and eastern European countries seem to be more hooked on tobacco. 

What perhaps makes France seem smokier than it is, is the ubiquity of outdoor café terraces, where people gather to smoke, meaning that walking down a French street frequently means inhaling smoke.

Wine drinkers 

The French do love a good glass of wine.

In 2019, France produced 4.3 billion litres of wine, accounting for 17 percent of global production. France is the second biggest wine producer in the world, after Italy. Red wines made up for 55 percent of total production, while white wines constituted 26 percent followed by rosés on 19 percent. 

Although wine consumption is steadily declining in France, the country still managed to knock back 26,500 hectolitres in 2019. Santé! 

Infidelity 

Many believe that infidelity runs deep in French culture. Some experts even say that having a mistress is almost a prerequisite for French presidents. 

There is even a term in French, le cinq à sept, for the extra-marital affair. It denotes the time slot in which to do so. You finish work at 5pm (cinq) and have until 7pm (when you need to be home) to conduct your smutty business. 

But is the cliché for the randy disloyal Frenchman true? 

An IFOP study in 2019 showed that 37 percent of French women and 49 percent of French men have already cheated on their partner. 

France is generally pretty close to the top of global infidelity rankings, but various studies have said that Thais, Germans, Danes, Americans and Italians are more disloyal. These surveys must be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because some cultures are more open than others to admitting infidelity. 

There are also signs that the political culture is changing and the French media are more willing to expose unfaithful politicians – as the Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux found out in 2020 when his sex tape was leaked to the media. He stood down.

Does the Griveaux scandal mean it’s now open season on French politicians’ sex lives?

Master bakers 

The French are known to enjoy a good baguette. 

But according to the Guinness World Records, Turkey is actually the world’s biggest bread consumer per capita. At the turn of the century, Turkish people ate more than three times their own body weight in bread every year.

That isn’t to say that the French don’t absolutely love their bread. The country has around 33,000 bakeries – roughly one per 2,000 people. These establishments produce approximately six billion baguettes per year, generate €11 million in annual income and employ close to 180,000 workers. 

Long comme un jour sans pain – long like a day without bread, is an old French expression used to convey an unbearably long wait for something. Ever since the 17th century, a single day without bread in France has been difficult to deal with. 

In French restaurants, it is considered an outrage if a bowl of bread is not brought to the table before a meal. 

Strikes and protests

Always either on strike or rioting, goes the cliché, and it’s true that the French do strike a lot. 

In the private sector alone, one study suggested that French private workers strike more than public and private sector workers in every other OECD country. Factor in public sector strikers and France would be even further ahead. 

However, the way that strikes are recorded differs from place to place, meaning it is difficult to make an accurate international comparison. Most studies suggest that the French are world champion strikers. 

But this one from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more. 

Whatever way you look at it, striking is very much part of French culture. And it is not entirely a bad thing. It is because of militant trade unionists that workers’ rights are much better protected in France than in many anglophone countries like the UK and the USA. 

As for protesting, this has run in France’s DNA since the Revolution of 1789. There are so many protests here that it can be hard to keep track of. Some might criticise or belittle this part of the country’s culture – but freedom to protest is the sign of a healthy democracy. 

Taxes 

France has a reputation for exorbitant tax rates, and there is some truth in this. In 2019, France had the highest tax-GDP ratio of any EU country. Corporate taxes are also high. 

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The high tax levels in France help pay for a world class health service, education system and welfare safety net. If you are a French taxpayer there is also a lot of help available for you from the government, from free French classes to books and concert tickets for the kids and subsidised holidays.

READ ALSO Bikes, gig tickets and holidays – 7 things the French government might pay for

Grumpy 

France is a magnificent country. It has a vibrant culture, delicious food and a booming economy. 

But the French can be grumpy. So grumpy in fact that complaining is considered a “national sport”. Although this can be observed better in big metropolitan centres like Paris than in the countryside. 

It’s a cliché that the French themselves are happy to go along with, as the French writer Sylvain Tesson remarked “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they are in hell”.

But the French are happier now than ever – before according to an annual survey, the Baromètre des Territoires, which was first published in 2018. 

In 2021, the study found that nearly 80 percent of French people described themselves as happy or very happy. It also found significant geographical variations in where people were most likely to be happy. 

Bearing in mind the shockingly high happiness rate, if you come across a grumpy French person, you should be aware that this attitude is most likely performative. 

Member comments

    1. Yes, compared to the UK (which has a genuinely poor primary education system when compared to many other countries in the world). The way children are taught is up for debate though as rote learning does not encourage critical thinking yet the French by the time they reach adulthood seem remarkably able to have healthy debates and reasoned discussions with far greater ease than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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