Mad about baguettes and cheese, work-shy, whiny and arrogant, while also being elegant connoisseurs of fine food…
Yes, you’ve guessed it, we’re discussing the most common French stereotypes. Lots of preconceived ideas, often contradictory in nature, have become associated with French people, but why are these french myths so persistent? What are the historical factors that might explain them? Where do French people stand in relation to their European neighbours?
Take a sample of non-natives and ask them what stereotypes come to mind when they think about French people – you might find some surprises in store!
After this quick brainstorm, you’ll see that many of these « clichés français », some more justified than others, come up regularly.
A brief overview of the most common prejudices about French people would look something like this:
1) When it comes to clothes, the typical Frenchman wears a beret, a red scarf and a stripy Breton top.
2) French people like to wander around with a baguette under their arm because they eat tons of the stuff every day.
3) Cooking and mealtimes are particularly important place. France is the land of cheese, red wine, snails and frog legs.
4) French people don’t work very hard, are especially fond of holidays and like to protest or go on strike at the slightest provocation.
5) French women embody a certain type of elegance, are particularly concerned about their figures and love designer fashion.
6) French people, especially in Paris, are not paragons of politeness: they are extremely direct, to the point of arrogance, and condescending towards others, especially tourists.
7) The French are fond of chivalry and love romance.
8) The French are dirty and are not top of the class when it comes to hygiene, which explains their penchant for perfume.
9) The French do not excel when it comes to expressing themselves in a foreign language.
10) Sophisticated and always inquisitive, French people enjoy literature, talking philosophy over a drink and engaging in interminable discussions about changing the world.
Let’s talk about the french baguettes first: there are 35,000 bakeries in France, selling nearly 6 billion baguettes a year.
In other words, although every year sees a further drop in the amount of bread they consume, French people are still not ready to give up their sacrosanct baguette!
But French people are not the biggest consumers of bread in Europe. The Germans, Bulgarians, Serbs, Cypriots and Greeks are way ahead: at 85 kg per person per year, the Germans are champions in comparison with our modest 58 kg annually.
As for French eating habits, it’s true that mealtimes are special. In France, unlike in Germany or Switzerland, lunch breaks can be over an hour or even an hour and a half in length. French cuisine (especially patisserie) is renowned throughout the world. Of course, when it comes to our famous fries, it’s hard to say whether it was the French or the Belgians who actually invented them.
The claim that French people don’t work hard is something of an exaggeration. It’s true that the legal working week is 35 hours, which is short in comparison with Germany or the United States (40 hours), but French workers are 15% more productive than their German counterparts, and enjoy five weeks of paid annual leave, similar to employees in many other countries.
Mad about cheese? Well, there’s no denying this one!
Given that we guzzle more than 26 kilos of the stuff per person per year, we are unquestionably the craziest when it comes to cheese. As for the “frogs” or “froggies” nickname given to us by our neighbours across the Channel, this one isn’t really justified. Not only are frogs’ legs mostly eaten during festivals or in restaurants, they’re also enjoyed in Louisiana, the Caribbean, Quebec and some parts of Africa, too. So this one’s not unique to French culture!
Just as there are national clichés, there are some regional ones, too. If you’ve ever seen the film « Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis » (Welcome to the Sticks), you’ll know that people from the south of France have their own preconceptions about the climate in the Hauts-de-France (formerly known as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais) region in the north-east of the country – and about the mentality of the people who live there.
In the film, the southerners think that it’s always cold and raining in the north-east, while Brittany, Normandy and the Paris region enjoy more or less the same amount of sun. Not to mention the other stereotypes which associate this region with reality TV, coal mines and a distinct weakness for booze!
Anyone who’s ever visited France will have noticed that French people wearing berets and Breton tops are few and far between to say the least. Berets are mainly worn by those from the Béarn region and the Basque country in the south-west. The green berets of the French Foreign Legion and the oversized versions worn by the Chasseurs Alpins elite mountain infantry are also legendary. As for Breton tops, they were, of course, more commonly worn in Brittany, in the north-west.
People from Brittany are often perceived as being stubborn. The typical Breton rejects external authority (after all, wasn’t Asterix the Gaul, who rebelled against the Romans, from Brittany?). Bretons stand up for their language and are proud of their flag, and that’s because, historically, they’ve been the victims of prejudice. Today, the word plouc is a pejorative term describing someone who is uncouth, awkward or badly dressed. But some historians believe that Parisians were using this word in the early twentieth century to describe Bretons who came to the capital seeking work.
We all have our own preconceptions, some positive, some not, about various groups of people, and the French are no different.
Some French stereotypes are so far from reality they’re simply laughable, while others french cultural facts are very close to the truth and have entirely rational explanations.
The best way to check out the reliability of these conventional ideas about French people is to visit the country yourself and make up your own mind.
Time for a trip to our french school in the French Riviera!
Photo by: @Darren Coleshill