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Lesson Transcript

Virginie: Bonjour everyone. Hi!
Eric: Eric here. Top Five Things You Need to Know About French Society.
Eric: So Virginie, what are we going to talk about today?
Virginie: Today we will focus on French society.

Lesson focus

Eric: Well, that’s a lot to cover.
Virginie: Yes we picked the five top things you should know about French society. Where do you think we should start?
Eric: Well it’s the capital of France that has such a strong identity.
Virginie: Yeah sounds good. I would like to talk about Paris.
Eric: Okay and you lived there for a while?
Virginie: Oh yes I went to college and then I worked there.
Eric: How lucky! It is city of lights.
Virginie: La ville lumière. Yes that’s the universal name for Paris. La ville lumière.
Eric: Okay “La ville lumière”. Why is it called that? Does it look like Times Square?
Virginie: Yeah. Well you have to know that “lumière” means lights but it doesn’t look like Times Square at all. Paris is called the City of Lights for several reasons mainly because of the Enlightenment era and it’s always been a crossroad for ideas, philosophy and education.
Eric: And “les lumières” is also the name for the Enlightenment in France, right?
Virginie: Yes exactly.
Eric: So it doesn’t have to actually do with lighting?
Virginie: Actually it does. Paris was one of the first cities to use electric lighting.
Eric: So the city of lights is like a double ???
Virginie: Yes.
Eric: So when I went there, people kept referring to Paris as Panam. What does that mean?
Virginie: Well, Paris is often called Panam by the French, that’s true. It’s slang. It’s funny to ask people why they think it’s called Panam because they come up with many explanations like Panam is a mix between Paris and Macadam and it’s kind of strange.
Eric: Macadam?
Virginie: Macadam. Macadam means concrete.
Eric: Ah okay.
Virginie: Yes.
Eric: So what’s the real origin?
Virginie: The real origin is that at the beginning of the 20th century, it was really fashionable in Paris to wear those hats called the Panama and the word turned into Panam after a while.
Eric: Okay. And is there a name for the Parisians?
Virginie: Yes people from outside of Paris like to call them “parigots”. It has a bad connotation though there has always been a conflict between Paris and the rest of France.
Eric: Yeah people from the provinces tend to find Parisians too paracentric and a little bit dismissive of the rest of the country.
Virginie: And people from Paris consider the rest of France a vast cornfield.
Eric: I guess it’s a conflict you see in a lot of countries. What do you think makes Paris so unique compared to other French cities for example?
Virginie: Well first of all, Paris has the same general type of layout as other cities.
Eric: So what is that like a historical center where the city life is concentrated and then the surrounding neighborhoods or Banlieue?
Virginie: Yes but there is something really unique about Paris. In addition to that, it really functions like a bunch of villages within the same city. You know that Paris is divided into areas called the “arrondissements” right?
Eric: Okay and there are 20 “arrondissements” in Paris right?
Virginie: Yes and each of them has its own personality. Take the 10th arrondissement for instance, it’s known for its vibrant Indian and African communities and there are a lot of Indian and African restaurants, stores, people. It’s really, really nice.
Eric: Wow! That’s great and fifth arrondissement is a student area with the Sorbonne, Collège de France, bookstores, art movie houses.
Virginie: Yes it’s completely different from the tenth arrondissement . So it’s really nice to walk in Paris and to go from one ambience to another.
Eric: And also each arrondissement has its own local celebrations, its own Bistro, café and its own city hall right?
Virginie: Yeah. There is one main city hall that administrates general affairs but otherwise each arrondissement is administrated by smaller city hall which is in charge of schools, local cultural events, community centers et cetera.
Eric: Okay. So Paris has always been like the cultural and economic core of France. It’s a very centralized country right?
Virginie: Yeah both politically and culturally. Until very recently, everything happens in Paris. Take theater for example. All the shows were first produced in Paris and then they toured all over the country but the production started in Paris. Now, you know we have this thing called the cultural decentralization. That means that politics have been trying to develop artistic creation in other regions in the provinces.
Eric: I’ve heard of a great theater festival in Avignon.
Virginie: Southeast of France. It’s a great, great window for theater.
Eric: Have you been?
Virginie: I have been once yeah. It’s really nice and the weather is great and there you can see all the new theater preductions in “avant-première” sort of.
Eric: Wow! So that’s before the premier even. Okay.
Virginie: Yeah.
Eric: But Paris is still the most active, vibrant city in France.
Virginie: Yes it is. Each city in France has its own identity but Paris is really where things happen the most.
Eric: And how fast paced is it?
Virginie: It is rather fast paced although not as much as Tokyo or New York but compared to other European capitals, it’s really charged with a lot of energy and sometimes stress.
Eric: Yeah big cities are pretty stressful.
Virginie: Yeah but in Paris, we can always stop by a local 50-seat movie theater to watch classic American or Russian movie or…
Eric: I’ve heard that Paris is extremely oriented around its museums.
Virginie: Yes there are lot of museums. Just you know going to the George Pompidou Center is quite an adventure.
Eric: Why?
Virginie: There is always something happening in the George Pompidou Center. It’s the modern art museum in Paris. This museum is a combination of art exhibits, movie theaters, performing arts and new technologies and it’s located in a very lively neighborhood called Beaubourg.
Eric: I’ve heard of it. Okay and there is tons of cafes and fashion areas, I’ve heard same paved streets.
Virginie: Yeah Beaubourg has paved streets it’s really nice. I love it too. Now let’s talk about how Parisians live their Parisian life.
Eric: I remember from visiting my Parisian friend that there is a lot of dinner parties.
Virginie: Oh yes there are. That’s something French people do. They invite each other a lot. You would think that Parisians go out all the time to restaurants, to clubs and everything. Well they go to clubs actually but they really like to cook dinner at home before they go out.
Eric: So it’s like more important for them to be at home if it’s like personal space, than to go to a restaurant?
Virginie: Yes they do a little bit of both I would say.
Eric: Aha. I am assuming everyone can’t live in like the center of Paris. It’s gotta be way too expensive or do a lot of people live in the outskirts of the city?
Virginie: Yeah most of the people actually of course. There are a lot of people in the outskirts of Paris. Well actually until recently, the center of Paris was a mix of everything from the working class to the middle class, to the upper class but these past years a lot of people who have not been able to afford rent anymore in the center. So they moved to the suburbs where housing is cheaper.
Eric: So the center of Paris is inhabited now by the middle and upper class?
Virginie: Yeah it used to be working class as well but now it’s really only middle and upper classes.
Eric: Okay so let’s get into another aspect of French society family life.
Virginie: Yeah French people are rather liberal when it comes to family.
Eric: So what are you saying? The typical family unit isn’t composed of both parents and two kids?
Virginie: Yes but half the couples get divorced now in France and marriage has been a declining institution for some time now.
Eric: But there is an alternative to marriage though.
Virginie: Yes there is. Either couples live in what is called concubinage meaning they just live together or they can live under the terms of what we call the PACS which is a civil union agreement.
Eric: And the civil union applies to anyone?
Virginie: Yeah no matter your sex or the sex of your partner, it’s for everyone.
Eric: Okay tell me something. Do French families get to spend a lot of time together?
Virginie: Yeah thanks to the fact that in general, French people work less than people in other countries. Officially they work 35 hours a week. It’s not a lot but they actually work a little more than that.
Eric: And they get 5 weeks of vacation in the year too.
Virginie: Yes it enables them to go on family vacation twice a year. It’s really nice.
Eric: That’s amazing, but do they get any work done?
Virginie: Well France is one of the most productive countries in the world. Let me tell you, getting time off really helps working efficiently.
Eric: And that’s coming from a French lady.
Virginie: Yeah you should try it.
Eric: And what about French school?
Virginie: Well students are not as lucky as their parents actually. Until 2009, until this year, they had to go to school 5 days a week from 9 in the morning to 5 or 6 in the evening.
Eric: Wow! They must have been pretty tired.
Virginie: Yes but now it changed. Now they only go to school 4 days a week but the days are longer.
Eric: From what time to what time?
Virginie: 8 to 6.
Eric: So education seems to be real priority in France but let’s talk about the workforce a little bit. When I was in France, I noticed that a lot of people didn’t seem to like socialize with their co-workers outside of work.
Virginie: Yeah good point. French people don’t often mix free time and professional time. It is very rare to go out with your boss who you usually invite for dinner once a year and it’s very you know serious and it’s somewhat unusual to go out with your co-workers but it’s becoming less and less the case especially with the young generation.
Eric: Hmm that’s a little bit different than in the US. I mean it seems like you know, there is a very established hierarchy at work.
Virginie: Yes you definitely won’t have a personal relationship with your boss. It’s very formal. You have to behave.
Eric: And besides professional relationships, what’s the work culture like in France?
Virginie: You mean, how the French consider working?
Eric: Yeah.
Virginie: Well it’s mainly based on centralism meaning that most decisions are made by very few people within the company depending on the size of the company obviously.
Eric: So that’s actually sort of similar to like the – you know political organization being very centralized in Paris. Everything is centralized in France.
Virginie: Yeah absolutely. France has centralized everything for a long time, authority in particular.
Eric: Talking about authority being centralized in France, what about today? This is going to be our next point of the day.
Virginie: Yes even today. It is obviously different from Monarchy but the president of the republic who is the head of the country has a lot of power.
Eric: So does he run the country?
Virginie: Not directly. The country is run by the Prime Minister who is head of the government but he has to report to the president on most matters.
Eric: And President of the France is elected for 5 years right? The current president is Sarkozy?
Virginie: Yes Nicolas Sarkozy. He is well known abroad ever since he married Carla Bruni, the model.
Eric: Okay and what’s the name of the Prime Minister?
Virginie: See that’s a good example on how important the president is in France. No one knows the name of the current prime minister. Well I do of course it’s François Fillon.
Eric: Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon. are in the same party?
Virginie: Yeah they are in the same party. It’s called the UMP Union for Popular Movement and it’s one of the two main political parties in France.
Eric: Okay and what’s the other party?
Virginie: The socialist party, the PS “parti socialiste”. So of course, the socialist party is left wing whereas the UMP is right wing.
Eric: It’s amazing how the socialist party in France actually has a lot of power.
Virginie: Yes well I have to say that it has been weakened lately but for the most part, the socialists have a lot of power especially locally in the regions and in the departments.
Eric: And the” departments” in French are like counties?
Virginie: Yes exactly and the fact that the socialist party is still in place is because people are very much attached to the “modèle social français” which means the French social model.
Eric: What do you mean by social model?
Virginie: Well the French social model offers public education, public health, public culture etcetera and people are guaranteed by the state that part of the national budget goes to public institutions from hospitals to universities to museums.
Eric: Interesting but in exchange, the French people have to pay a lot of taxes.
Virginie: Yes a lot of taxes. It’s called the solidarity effort. Solidarity has always been important in the eyes of the French.
Eric: Interesting but I’ve heard that some of the universities are getting to be like more autonomous though.
Virginie: Oh yes a lot of things are changing right now in France ever since Nicolas Sarkozy was elected.
Eric: Like a lot of reforms?
Virginie: Multitude of reforms and among them yes the reform on research in universities and…
Eric: So that means they are going sort of from being part of the state to being a little more independent. We are going to have to discuss this more another day.
Virginie: Yes I think we’ll need a whole day too. Totally it’s true, definitely.
Eric: I look forward to that.
Virginie: Yes me too but we should get to our 5th point which is the generational conflict in France.
Eric: So France is one of – it is sort of an older nation these days.
Virginie: Yeah it’s true. We love our “troisième âge”.
Eric: Troisième âge. What is that?
Virginie: “Troisième âge” literally means third age. It stands for retired people.
Eric: That means that there is a conflict between the generations?
Virginie: No actually the generation gap between the young and older generation is not so much with trends but more with economic differences.
Eric: I think you are talking a little bit about the differences in salary like I’ve heard the salary got between workers in their thirties and workers in their fifties is 40%. So young people have to really struggle and work twice as much to make this amount of money.
Virginie: Yeah it’s a lot harder to make a living when you are young.
Eric: So that’s got to be generating some frustration and tension between the younger people.
Virginie: Yes there is a lot of frustration. You know especially now that we are in recession, more and more young people get multiple university degrees and don’t seem to be able to apply their skills to the job market.
Eric: That means probably we are not creating a good social climate.
Virginie: That’s right. Youth is less and less interested in politics and national affairs. I think French society reached a point where it deeply needs changes too.
Eric: And that’s what the last presidential campaign was all about, right?
Virginie: Yes change and that’s the reason why France has elected a reform-oriented president.


Eric: Okay well let’s hope for the best. That was the last election in the US was the same way. Thanks a lot and I hope that you come back soon with more insights about France.
Virginie: Okay, well, thank you. Thank you all for listening and have a great day! Merci!
Eric: Take care.
Virginie: Au revoir!