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An Overview of French Culture

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Are you planning on visiting France soon? Or even on settling down? Maybe you’re just curious about the country in general. Whatever the reason, you’ve come to the perfect place to learn about what makes France so special.

France is considered one of the most culturally influential countries in the world, and this is not surprising. This country has a lot to offer: a wealth of history and art, fine food, booming entertainment industries, a chic fashion scene, and strong values.

On this page, you’ll learn the most important French culture facts, from core values to general lifestyle.

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in French Table of Contents
  1. French Values
  2. Religions and Cults
  3. Relationships
  4. Lifestyle
  5. Art and Entertainment
  6. Food and Wine
  7. French Holidays
  8. Le Mot De La Fin

1. French Values

Understanding French culture begins with a working knowledge of the values and mindset of the French. 

A- Why is it Difficult to Define a “French Culture”?

While the concept of a “melting pot” is an integral part of the American culture, it has always been a bit more contentious in France. What is the French culture exactly? Should it be viewed as the culture from the mainland? But then what about Corsica and our five overseas regions?

Today, France is not the patchwork of local customs nor the disparate collection of communities it was only two centuries ago. However, it’s still home to numerous indigenous and foreign languages as well as multiple ethnicities and religions—and all of this on top of the regional diversity of the metropolitan territories.

Somehow, France managed to develop a certain shared “cultural identity.” It came not only from the education system, military service, and local politics, but also from profoundly influential historical events such as the French Revolution in 1789, the two World Wars, and the social revolution in 1968.

Despite some recent efforts to promote multiculturalism and communitarianism (through the preservation of regional languages and the decentralization of power), a number of events have put this fragile culture under a lot of pressure: 

  • the depopulation of the countryside
  • large waves of non-Christian immigrant communities
  • centralization
  • market forces
  • the globalization of the world economy

However, there is still a sense of pride in our national identity and in the achievements of France. The interracial blending also makes for a vibrant pool of talents, from popular music to literature, music, art, and more.

B- Core Values of the French Republic 

Liberty, equality, and fraternity have defined the French people since the eighteenth century (often called the Age of Enlightenment). The motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” first appeared during the French Revolution and was later written into the Constitution in 1958, officially becoming part of the French national heritage.

Do these values still hold true in France today? While French citizens are mainly concerned about social inequalities, loss of liberties, and abuses of power, this is a very delicate question. Nevertheless, it remains an ideal we want to hold on to.

C- The French Mindset

There are a few defining French culture characteristics concerning specific values and the French mindset. Of course, this varies a lot depending on one’s social circle and level of education, but there are some general trends.

Freedom is greatly valued and people are often defiant toward authorities: government and police alike. Suspicions of corruption or abuse of power easily arise and can have a huge impact on people’s perception of the current elected officials.

Freedom of speech is usually seen as essential. Nowadays, it is arguably impaired by a certain obsession with political correctness. Public expressions that are deemed inappropriate are even punishable by law as they can potentially foster hatred.

However, we still value critical thinking and education, and the French often try to appear knowledgeable about culture, literature, world events, science, or…well, basically everything. In France, you don’t need to look tough, have perfect hair, or possess amazing dance skills. If you want to stand out, you need to be educated and assertive.

Having an open mind is generally regarded as an important quality. Even though there is still a lot of work ahead of us, the French are rather progressive in their mentalities regarding different religions and are more willing to dive into new cultures. Gender inequalities are on the decline and LGBT rights have come a long way in recent years.

Social classes are still a thing, with the upper class rarely mingling with the ‘commoners,’ a general disconnect from the rural world, and increasing social inequality. On an encouraging note, the public opinion is showing more and more awareness of those issues. For example, when Presidents Sarkozy or Macron were displaying too much wealth or scorning the working class, their popularity quickly went down.

The French Revolution

La Révolution Française (“The French Revolution”) – 1789

2. Religions and Cults

In French culture, religion is a hot topic—making it an essential factor to mention in our overview.

A- Freedom of Religion

France is a secular country. This means that, by law, the French government remains neutral concerning religion; as such, it should neither enforce nor prohibit citizens’ free exercise of religion. French citizens are free to choose any religion (or none), and it’s a private matter that shall never interfere with official affairs.

No “God saves the President” or swearing on the Bible in France. When the loi sur la séparation de l’Église et de l’État (“Law on the Separation of the Church and State”) came into effect in 1905, so did the “freedom to practice religion.”

It’s important to understand that this set of laws is by no means a weapon against religion. It is only returning all religions to the private sector and guaranteeing state secularism in the public sphere. The French state does not favor any particular religion and should aim at maintaining their peaceful co-existence.

In the same spirit, the law of March 15, 2004, prohibits all religious clothing and accessories from being worn in schools (as children are considered more vulnerable to indoctrination). This specific law caused some outrage among part of the Muslim community and is still a hot topic.

B- Dominant Religions in France

According to a recent official poll by the French government:

  • 37% of French people identify with some religion
  • 31% are atheists and 15% agnostics
  • 10% are indifferent to religion

14% of French people take part in some religious practice at least once a month (religious office or events, group prayers, etc.).

Catholicism is by far the most dominant religion in the country, way ahead of Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. It’s interesting to note how heavily Islam has weighed on the public debate, despite there being a very small number of Muslim believers in France.

Even though France boasts a glorious Catholic legacy, with numerous architectural masterpieces such as Notre-Dame and the Cathédrale de Reims, Christianity is on the decline and few people attend Mass anymore. This decline is especially prominent among the younger generations.

Le Mont Saint Michel

Le Mont Saint Michel

3. Relationships

Every culture has its own ways of perceiving and handling different relationships. Let’s take a look at French cultural norms when it comes to family, couples, and friends.

A- Family

The family is an important cohesive component of French society and each member has certain responsibilities. Gender equality hasn’t been fully achieved yet, but both parents are usually working and making important household decisions together.

Family members are generally close. They take meals together during the week and it’s common to gather with extended family on weekends. When they’re not living under the same roof anymore, they regularly keep in touch.

With 1.87 children per woman (a number that has been slowly but steadily going down since 2010), France remains the most fertile country in the European Union.


B- Couples

Since the 1960s, marriage has been on the decline and France has seen an increasing number of divorces. Getting married is not as popular as it used to be, and a lot of French couples now have a practical approach to it. 

Created in 1999, the pacs or PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarité, for “Civil Solidarity Pact”) is, along with the classic civil marriage, one of the two forms of civil union in France.

It was originally created to give same-sex couples the same rights and legal protection as straight couples. However, the PACS is getting increasingly popular, especially for straight couples who find it more flexible and less bureaucratically heavy than getting married. They represent more than 95% of the total number of couples getting Pacsed. Numbers are also showing that the PACS is slowly taking over traditional marriage.

As of 2013, France legally recognizes same-sex marriage, thanks to a new law called Mariage pour tous (“Marriage for all”), passed by President François Hollande. The first French same-sex marriage took place on May 29, 2013, in Montpellier.


C- Friendship

When compared to Americans, the French can seem cold or distant at first glance, but it’s just a misunderstanding of their behavior. We show a bit more formality and reserve with strangers and it takes some time for us to open up.

Inviting someone to our home doesn’t come as fast and naturally as it does in other cultures, but once we’re good friends with someone, our door will always be open. Friends are expected to be loyal, help each other, and stay in touch on a regular basis. Loin des yeux, loin du coeur. (“Far from the eyes, far from the heart.”)

A Happy Family Eating Together

La famille (“Family”)

4. Lifestyle

French traditions and culture make for a unique lifestyle in terms of work and leisure time. Take a look.

A- Work 

The business culture in France varies greatly depending on the industry and the company you’re dealing with. It ranges from very casual to uptight and formal. In any case, we strictly adhere to the hierarchy, and the chain of command matters even in small organizations.

The French value their free time most of all, and work is usually considered a means rather than an end. As a result, we have a reputation for working hard and efficiently, without overcommitting. We try to preserve a satisfying work-life balance at all times.

French workers tend to keep their work environment as friendly and casual as possible. You’re likely to develop strong connections with your colleagues and hang out outside of working hours (but this is by no means mandatory).


B- Hobbies

97% of the French believe that hobbies, sports, and social or cultural activities contribute to their quality of life. On average, active French workers can dedicate around nine hours per week to their hobbies.

Le foot (“Football”) is the most-watched sport in France, followed by Rugby, cycling, and tennis. But however popular they are on TV or at school, few people actually practice these sports in their free time. Hiking (in France or abroad), jogging, and dancing are much more common physical activities.

Other popular hobbies among French people include:

  • listening to music
  • watching TV
  • browsing online
  • going out with friends
  • watching movies or series
  • playing video games
  • reading newspapers
  • messaging 

Creative hobbies are also on the rise. 71% of the French take part in at least one creative activity, such as cooking, bricolage (do-it-yourself crafts), painting, and more.


C- Tobacco and Drugs

The legal drinking age is 18, and alcohol can be bought in any supermarket or convenience store and it’s sold in most restaurants. Alcohol plays an important role in social gatherings, be it in bars, clubs, or at home. It’s also common to conduct business over a glass of wine during a déjeuner d’affaires (“business lunch”).

The cigarette smoking age is also 18 years. Contrary to the widespread cliché, France is pretty far down the list of the heaviest cigarette consumers (ranking 60 out of 181). 

Following a series of laws in 2007 and 2008, smoking in all public places (stations, museums, restaurants) is now banned. While it’s possible to have a smoking room in your bar, smoking is so restricted that it usually only happens in the streets or terraces.

Cannabis is still illegal but widely used in France. Around 45% of the French have tried it and 30% smoke it somewhat regularly. It makes France one of the top consumers in the world, even before countries where the substance is legal, such as the Netherlands. Other recreational drugs are often very expensive and are thus marginally used.

Cycling Race

Le Tour de France (Most famous French cycling race)

5. Art and Entertainment

Few things are as defining as a culture’s collective art and entertainment industries. Here’s what you should know about art and entertainment in France.

A- Centuries of Art

France has a long tradition of flourishing art, especially since the twelfth century. This was when Gothic art and architecture originated around Paris before spreading all over Europe. Shortly after, French craftsmen developed the stained glass painting techniques that you can see in so many European Christian buildings.

From Gothic to Baroque, then to Classicism, French art evolved over the centuries to reach a peak around the seventeenth century. This was when famous classical painters, such as Peter Paul Ruben and Nicolas Poussin, emerged—and when impressive works of architecture, such as the Château de Versailles (“Versailles Castle”), were created.

To think that such legendary artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Van Gogh were all alive during the same period in the second half of the nineteenth century is mind-blowing. It’s no surprise that the Louvre museum is host to such an impressive collection.

B- Music, Cinema, and Literature

The music of France reflects the diversity of the country’s ethnicities and cultures, with a wide array of styles. We have the fifth largest music market in the world and have produced many internationally famous artists, especially in electronic music (such as Daft Punk or David Guetta).

France is the birthplace of cinema and home to some of its most important contributions. Today, most French movies don’t go anywhere beyond our borders. Is it deserved? Yeah, pretty much. Except for a vibrant scene in the horror genre, we’re stuck with the same rehashed family dramas and dumb comedies.

French literature is an important part of our cultural lives and is introduced early on in our educational system. This is reinforced by the French media’s focus on book fairs and prizes, such as the Prix Goncourt, Prix Renaudot, and Prix Femina. Reading is a popular pastime for many French people, but it’s losing ground to streaming and other online activities.

All around the world, video games are now bigger than movies, and France is no exception. Thanks to tax cuts from the French government and a fair number of talented studios (such as Arkane, Asobo, and Dontnod), the French gaming industry has recently produced internationally acclaimed titles.

6. Food and Wine

The French culture and cuisine go hand in hand. Food is one of the great passions of French people, who place great emphasis on refined cooking methods that involve careful preparation of fresh ingredients. The cuisine can be really different from one region to the next and relies heavily on what is locally grown.

In 2010, the French gastronomy was awarded the most prestigious award by UNESCO when it was added to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

A- The Top 5 French Dishes

It would be impossible to list all of the delicious dishes France is famous for, but here are a few samples:

  1. Tartiflette
    This consists of potatoes, fried onions, and sliced bacon oven-cooked with wine, garlic, and a massive amount of reblochon (arguably the best mountain cheese France has to offer).

  2. Steak Tartare
    This is raw beef ground or sliced into tiny pieces and served with a mix of herbs, condiments, a fresh egg yolk, capers, and minced shallot.

  3. Cassoulet
    This is a casserole of white beans and slow-cooked meat, often served with duck leg confit cooked in duck fat for the most decadent and amazing results.

  4. Crêpes
    Unlike American-style pancakes, crêpes are thin and delicate, but they share the same list of ingredients. They can be eaten with sweet or savory fillings.

  5. Endives au jambon
    This northern recipe is based on steam-cooked endives (“chicory”) wrapped in cooked ham, bathed in béchamel sauce, and topped with grated cheese.

B- Unique French Products

French wine is one of our biggest national prides. It’s produced across the whole country in large quantities and exported all over the world. It has many styles, terroirs, and labels, and it’s mostly made to accompany the food. No meal is complete without a good bottle of wine.

Short for apéritif, the apéro is a set of pre-dinner drinks and finger food. It’s similar to a cocktail party that we can have before lunch at around 11 a.m. or in the evening from 6 p.m. The French take their apéro quite seriously and it’s an important part of meetings with friends and family.

Cheese is one of the apéro’s best friends, and with around 1600 different French cheeses, there is a lot to be excited about. They all have their unique shape, texture, aroma, and flavor, but as a general rule: the smellier the better. Some cheeses are better suited for cooking and others are eaten in slices, on fresh bread, or melted in sauces.

Another classic apéro item is the charcuterie. It can consist of a wide range of cold cuts, from ham to saucisson, mortadella, smoked ham, cured ham, and much more. It comes mostly from pork and is often smoked or dry-cured.

L’apéro

L’apéro

    → Did this section stimulate your appetite? Make sure to stop by our full guide to French Cuisine for more details on the meals and local delicacies!

7. French Holidays 

Many of the French holidays are of Christian origin. For the most part, their religious implications have been lost, but we still commemorate Ascension Day, Christmas, and Easter Monday. We also have a few French-specific and secular holidays:

  1. National Day (July 14)
    This is the most important national holiday. It commemorates the French Revolution, and more precisely, the fall of the Bastille as a symbol of the French Revolution victory.

  2. Labor Day (May 1)
    The premier mai (“first of May”) or fête du travail (“work holiday”) is Labor Day in France. Almost all companies and stores are closed on that day.

  3. New Year’s Day (January 1)
    Le jour de l’an (Literally, “The day of the year”) or Le premier de l’an (“First of the year”) is the first day of the year. Like many countries, France celebrates the New Year. 

    → Make sure you come prepared when attending a French holiday celebration. Here are a few useful words for the National Holiday with audio recordings on FrenchPod101.com.

8. Le Mot De La Fin

In this French culture overview, you’ve learned everything about the culture of France, from its core values to religion, relationships, lifestyle, art, cuisine, and more. Did we forget any important French culture topics or facts you’ve heard about?

I hope this will inspire you to dive even deeper—and what better way to do so than by learning the language? Learning a foreign language is a window wide open to a new culture if you’re bold enough to take the leap!

Make sure to explore FrenchPod101, as we have plenty of free resources to help you study key grammar points and learn new words. Our vocabulary lists are also a great way to review words and learn their pronunciation.

Remember that you can also use our Premium PLUS service, MyTeacher, to get personal one-on-one coaching. Your private teacher will help you with any topic you’re curious about or struggling with. Along with giving you assignments, personalized exercises, and recorded audio samples, your teacher will review your work and help you improve your pronunciation. 

Happy learning on FrenchPod101.com!

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