Have you ever made assumptions about French people? They eat cheese. They drink wine. They wear a lot of black. There are plenty of stereotypes that surround the French. Over the years these stereotypes have become more and more elaborate thanks to their portrayal in films, TV, books, cartoons, magazines and art.
They range from the silly to the grossly exaggerated and sometimes the downright rude. A quick scan of the Google image search results for “French people” reveals a familiar caricature in a striped shirt with a thin scarf, wearing a beret, sporting a curled mustaches and holding a baguette and a glass of wine (or sometimes even a bottle). He may be smoking a cigarette and if he is a she there will undoubtedly be some red lipstick involved. There’s nothing inherently positive or negative about this representation, until you take a closer look.
An uninformed Englishman might assume the French spend their days on strike, eating cheese and reading poetry in smokey cafés. Some people consider the French to be arrogant, lazy and smelly. On the flip side they have a reputation for being confident, beautiful and artsy. Of course the French are aware of these impressions and do generally find them funny. They also have plenty of ideas about the Americans and the Brits — more on this later.
As is usually the case, stereotypes tend not to be true. In fact, many times they are simply the product of a deeply-rooted cultural misunderstanding. If you are a language learner it helps to keep an open mind and avoid this kind of generalization. Instead, see for yourself when you take your next trip to France!
Where stereotypes come from
France has a reputation as being one of the most beautiful places in the world and as a testament to this its capital Paris receives more annual visitors than any other city in Europe. Are stereotypes the result of all of these tourists and their misguided impressions of the locals?
On the contrary, stereotypes tend to be deeply rooted in a country’s history and international reputation. Stereotypes of the French are particularly popular due to the prominence of French culture on the global stage. People have been interested in visiting France, learning the French language and getting to know French people for hundreds of years.
During the time of Louis XIV some cultures were jealous of the sophistication and elegance France’s ruling class achieved. Others found grounds for discontent due to the actions of French military figures like Napoleon. Napoleon was considered French even though he was actually born in Corsica, a small island in the Mediterranean (some say he was really more Italian). He was seen as a poor war leader and to be fair he did try to blow up local monuments during his attempts to invade the rest of Europe. Nevertheless he was very passionate about his wine and his cheese and earned himself quite an unfavorable reputation. To add fuel to the fire, every time he was kicked out of power he managed to come back which just infuriated France’s neighbors at the time.
Some people believe negative stereotypes of the French can be attributed to their more recent behavior following the Second World War. They were liberated by the English and Americans but supposedly did not thank them for this.
In the last 50 years film has had an enormous influence on the global perception of the French. Remember Inspector Clouseau the buffoon-like police-man also known as the Pink Panther? Played by Peter Sellers this character was the epitome of a classic French stereotype and there are plenty of similar examples in American and English movies and sitcoms.
Common French stereotypes
Surely there is some truth to these assertions about France and its people? Not particularly but let’s have a look anyway. Keep in mind most of the below is normally laughed at by the French people for its cultural inaccuracy. So, if you’re French or know anyone French, take what follows with a pinch of sel!
- French people are rude. It’s not so much that they lack manners when it comes to eating out or welcoming guests but more that they don’t apologize constantly like the British or shy away from expressing their opinion. Politeness is different in every culture and the UK and US tend to have a very elaborate set of unspoken rules governing it. French people are more direct in their approach which has on occasion earned them the reputation of being rude.
- Frenchmen are over-confident. On the whole the French are pretty proud to be French. Nationalist pride runs strong as evidenced by the huge celebrations every year on July 14, France’s independence or Bastille Day. France is a country famous around the world for its culture and the French know it. They may be confident but try to find a culture that isn’t!
- They are lazy. Americans prefer to grind away at their 9-5 jobs but the French work a 35 hour week. They recently passed a law saying it was illegal for companies to require employees to check their email outside of working hours. They go on strike at what the UK would deem the drop of a hat. While cultural outsiders may brand this an avoidance of work, the French are actually quite productive so it all depends on how you look at it.
- They drink wine every evening. France has a long history as a wine-producing country. Their vines have been cultivated since before the Romans first invaded Gaul. They even have governing bodies responsible for regulating the quality of their regional wines which must have an Appellation d’origine contrôlée stamp on their etiquette. Because of this culture of wine the French do tend to have a glass of wine with dinner but they are on the whole quite moderate drinkers compared to other European countries.
- They are intellectual snobs. French writers have been producing essays on education in France since Michel de Montaigne first set the stage in the late 1500s. France’s tradition of maintaining a number of state run facilities called the Grandes écoles is famous in Europe. These institutions only accept the top of the top and are responsible for producing the majority of the country’s governing officials and elite class. Everyone in France passes their BAC after high school, a high stakes exam that determines entrance to university. In all, the French work hard to be smart and they’re proud of that.
- The women are beautiful. French fashion has been in the spotlight for years and perhaps this has led many to believe that there is something different about French women. Just like in any culture France has its standard ideals of beauty and these include makeup, perfume, dressing well and having a good sense of style.
- They have funny accents. It’s not that all French people have an accent but more so that the way French is spoken, with the muscles at the front of the mouth tensed, is very different from the relaxed mouth required for English. This causes them to speak English in a particular way which many a cartoon and film have played up in the name of comedy. Now consider how the English sound when they speak French!
What about within France?
The French people have created a number of stereotypes pertaining to different geographic regions of their own country. The Bretons who come from the area closest to England share historical roots with the Celtic tribes. They are also thought of as sharing the Brits’ fondness for drinking. They have their own language which is different from French and are usually portrayed as drinking apple cider, eating salty pancakes known as galettes and being overly proud of being from Bretagne. In the northern departments bordering Belgium people are said to speak with a funny accent. In Alsace, a department that used to belong to Germany, the French think locals only drink beer and eat saukerkraut. Stereotypes dictate that people from Provence have a real laissez-faire attitude while the Parisians are up-tight and always on the go. The Lyonnais are top chefs, in Marseille you have to watch your wallet and Nice and Corsica are full of mobsters. Is there any truth to all of these caricatures? Not much but they are still worth knowing about in case you find yourself in a conversation with someone from France who brings the topic up.
What does a French person think about all this?
We asked a French woman what she thought of some of the stereotypes highlighted above. Here’s what she said…
- I strongly believe French people aren’t rude. In fact, it’s the opposite! Politeness is very important to French people. I dare you to listen to any conversation without hearing at least one “excuse-me” or “thank you.” At least, this is my general feeling. I’m not quite sure if this applies in the Parisian underground.
- So Frenchmen are over-confident? How about charming and attractive as well? That’s a nice portrait but I’m afraid it’s not that accurate. Everyone is unique no matter where you go in the world and this applies to personality too.
- I don’t think the French are lazier than any other nationality. Let’s not confuse “lazy” and “taking your time!” They do appreciate having some moments for themselves and enjoying the small pleasures of life such as good food and family. I think they just manage to have lots of these moments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are lazy.
- You’ll only find them drinking wine every evening in the movies! Today many people in France actually have a pretty healthy lifestyle and drink water for dinner.
- Some people may be snobs. That’s a tough one. The French do like to moan and complain, I’ll give you that. I’m not sure if those are qualities you associate with being an intellectual snob though.
- French women are beautiful- agreed! What a flattering stereotype! I think all French women share a common sense of style. It’s a “je ne sais quoi” that makes you say “she’s French.”
- An accent? Oh right, an accent. It’s funny how I never realised it before but it’s true that French speakers have a strong accent in English! It won’t get in the way of having a fluent conversation though.
How do the French feel about the English?
Stereotypes go both ways and just like the English have their impressions of the French, France certainly has a lot to say about England. The general sentiment is that Brits are too free with the “sorry’s” and “pardon-me’s.” They like to drink a lot of “cuppa’s” and get really “blattered” on weekends. Their cuisine is un-palatable and consists of mainly sausage and fried fish and they are emotionally dead-pan– probably because they live in a country inundated with rain. Now tell us how you really feel!
Common French stereotypes of the English:
- They love tea.
- They avoid emotions.
- They drink too much alcohol.
- They are too polite.
- They say sorry all the time.
- They eat only fish and chips.
Ask yourself, do these feel correct and accurate? Do they describe every Englishman or, like the way the English think of the French, are they gross exaggerations? Hopefully, you’ve concluded the latter.
In any case, in today’s globalized world stereotypes are becoming harder and harder to maintain. People come from a mix of different cultural backgrounds and major European cities like Paris and London are melting pots where individuals from all over the world can come together. Stereotypes divide us based on our differences whereas we need more celebrations of what makes us unique.
If you love French language and culture then learn about the stereotypes but don’t take them to heart. Embrace the true France and form your own opinions about its local population.
Do you have any stereotypes of the French to contribute? Let us know in the comments!