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French Culture: Customs & Traditions

skyline view of Paris
The skyline of Paris viewed from the top of Notre Dame.
Credit: William Perugini | Shutterstock

Most people associate French culture with Paris, which is a center of fashion, cuisine, art and architecture, but life outside of the City of Lights is very different and varies by region. Historically, the French culture was influenced by Celtic and Gallo-Roman cultures as well as the Franks, a Germanic tribe. France was initially defined as the western area of Germany known as Rhineland but it later came to refer to a territory that was known as Gaul during the Iron Age and Roman era.

While vast differences separate metropolitan and urban areas, over the past 200 years wars — the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II in particular — have been unifying forces.

Languages of France

French is the dominant language of the country’s 65.4 million residents, but there are a number of variants based on region. French, the official language, is the first language of 88 percent of the population and is typically the second language of those who speak another language.

About 3 percent of the population speak German dialects, predominantly in the eastern provinces, and there is a small group of Flemish speakers in the northeast. Arabic is the third-largest minority language.

Those living near the border with Italy typically speak Italian as a second language, and Basque is spoken by people living along the French-Spanish border.

Other dialects and languages include Catalan, Breton (the Celtic language), Occitan dialects, and languages from the former French colonies, including Kabyle and Antillean Creole.

Religions of France

Catholicism is the predominant religion of France — about 80 percent identify themselves as Catholic — but the country is fairly secular and the vast majority of those who affiliate themselves with the religion do not attend mass regularly. Other main religions include Islam, practiced primarily by immigrants from North Africa, Protestantism and Judaism.

Values of the French People

The French take immense great pride in their nation and government and are typically offended by any negative comments about their country. Visitors, particularly Americans, often interpret their attitude toward foreigners as rude.

The expression "chauvinism" originated in France and while women are playing a greater role in family life and business, many still see it as a male-dominated culture.

The French embody romance and passion, and there is an open attitude toward sex outside of marriage. Even the country’s top politicians have been known to carry out extramarital affairs without making an effort to conceal them. As a reflection of the country’s secular nature, about half of children are born to unmarried couples.

The French embrace style and sophistication and take pride in the fact that even their public spaces strike a regal tone.

The French believe in "égalité," which means equality, and is part of the country’s motto: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Many say they place a higher importance on equality than liberty and fraternity, the other two words in the motto.

coq-au-vin
A traditional French dish is coq au vin — chicken in Burgundy wine, lardons (small strips or cubes of pork fat), button mushrooms, onions and garlic.
Credit: Dream79 | Shutterstock

French cuisine

Food and wine are central to life at all socioeconomic levels, and much socializing is done around lengthy dinners.

Bread is central to any meal, and it is commonplace to see long, crusty baguettes being carried home. Cheese is also an essential part of any French meal.

While cooking styles have changed to emphasize lighter fare, many still associate French cooking with heavy sauces and complicated preparation. Some classic French dishes include boeuf bourguignon — a stew made of beef braised in red wine, beef broth and seasoned with garlic, onions and mushrooms — and coq au vin, a dish made with chicken, Burgundy wine, lardons (small strips or cubes of pork fat), button mushrooms, onions and optional garlic.

French clothing

Paris is known as the home to many high-end fashion houses; the French people are known for their understated elegance in clothing.

Many French people dress in a sophisticated, professional and fashionable style, but it is not overly fussy. Typical outfits include nice dresses, suits, long coats, scarves and berets.

French art

Art is everywhere in France — particularly in Paris and other major cities — and Gothic, Romanesque Rococo and Neoclassic influences can be seen in many churches and other public buildings.

Many of history’s most renowned artists, including Spaniard Pablo Picasso and Dutch-born Vincent van Gogh, sought inspiration in Paris, and they gave rise to the Impressionism movement.

The Louvre Museum in Paris is among the world’s largest museums and is home to many famous works of art, including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. 

Holidays and celebrations

The French celebrate the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. They mark May Day, also known as Labor Day, on May 1. Victory in Europe Day on May 8 commemorates the end of hostilities in Europe in World War II. Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14, the day the Bastille fortress in Paris was stormed by revolutionaries to start the French Revolution.

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