France is one of the most visited countries in the world and Emily in Paris is one of the most watched series on Netflix. Naturally, there are countless clichés and stereotypes about this country and its people. As foreigners, many of us want to better understand these mysteries but often we are too shy to ask all the questions we have in mind. But if we don’t ask we won’t ever know.

That’s why I invited my Canadian and American friends to send me their top questions regarding France and French people. I then asked these very questions to three of my French friends to start to understand the truth. Here are the results of this little investigation.

It should go without saying that these answers do not represent the opinions of all French people, but I still hope that they can inspire more conversations and less prejudice. A huge merci to Vincent, Alexandre, and Cassandra for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s dive in!

The below text is a transcription and translation of interviews conducted orally in French.

Can you please introduce yourself?

  • Vincent: My name is Vincent. I’m 35 years old and I’m French. I’m originally from the south of France and I’ve been living in Paris for 5 years. I work in the car rental tech space.
  • Alexandre: My name is Alexandre. I’m 35 years old. I was born in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. I work as a project manager in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Cassandra: I’m Cassandra. I was born in France and live in the Parisian region. Currently I work as a tech consultant.

Why do the French eat dinner so late? (i.e. 8pm or even later)

  • Vincent: I think it’s because we have well defined meals. There are three: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they are never skipped. Everyone eats lunch between noon and 2pm. If you eat at noon, that means at 5pm you’re just not hungry yet. I think that’s why when people get out from work at 5-6pm, they’ll go play some sports first, or pick up their kids from school. So then that pushes back the dinner time to 7pm or later, but not earlier than that. Basically between 5pm and 7pm either you’re not hungry or you’re busy doing other stuff.
  • Alexandre: I think it’s a question of habit. I’m Asian, so I tend to eat earlier around 6-7pm. But my brother is very French, he eats around 8:30-9pm. Maybe it’s also because of work. People finish late, around 6-6:30pm in Paris, and then they have to take care of their kids. It takes time to cook and stuff. As for young people, I think they like to go out. They’ll meet first for apéro (sausages, cheese, snacks, drinks) and then dinner just happens later.
  • Cassandra: What is considered late? I don’t feel like I eat very late. We end work at 6pm, we’ve got stuff to do, sports clubs, meeting up with friends for an apéro. 8-9pm is when we eat dinner, but at 4pm we have goûter (snack time), maybe some cake or pastry, fruits, or other snacks between lunch and dinner.

Why do so many French people smoke cigarettes?

  • Vincent: Good question. Maybe it’s because the price for a pack used to be very cheap in France, around 2-3 euros. Also there might be an association with the fashion and style of the 1920s and 30s, when, not to be pretentious, but the French were quite well dressed. And so cigarettes kind of evoke that cool image of patron or séducteur. Maybe that persists even today.
  • Alexandre: The people whom I know that smoke, I think it’s because they’re stressed out. They’re stressed by their routine, by transportation, by work. When I ask them, they say smoking is a moment of relaxation for them.
  • Cassandra: Because Parisians, for example, are stressed. Stressed by the metro, by other people… I personally don’t smoke so I’m not sure but people do like to smoke.

French people have a reputation for being cold and mean to outsiders. What do you think about this?

  • Vincent: Actually I only first learned about this cliché when I went to Canada, where people said the French are rude. But I don’t think we’re rude, we’re just honest. If a French person doesn’t like you, he’s not going to say “Oh I appreciate you so much, let’s grab a drink” or whatever. He’ll be honest and frank. I’m not sure if there is an etymological link between frank and France, but in any case I think French people are honest much more than mean.
  • Alexandre: I don’t agree with that. I find that people are quite warm… well maybe it’s different in Paris. People here are in a rush, they don’t have time to reply nicely to others. But when I lived in Normandy, people were nice. When people got on the bus to go to work, they would say hello to the driver and the driver would say it back. In the countryside too, people are nicer than Parisians. I think it’s because of life here in Paris, people are in such a rush.
  • Cassandra: I would say that it depends on where you are. In some places, people are curious towards foreigners while in others people are indifferent. Paris gets a lot of tourists so we see a lot of foreigners. The lifestyle here is quite intense, when you take the metro you know exactly where you’re going. And so when you’re in a rush to catch the train and you see a foreigner fumbling around, you kind of think “come on, move a little” haha. It’s also because we don’t speak foreign languages well and so people don’t want to make the effort. That’s just my guess, but I’m not cold towards foreigners, I’m pretty open and curious.

Is it true that the French complain a lot?

  • Vincent: Well yeah haha. I think it’s a French trademark, and as you can see, going on strike is a national sport. It’s our right to strike, so why deprive ourselves of it? That’s probably why we’re always fighting for a yes or no with the government. Especially if they promise us something but then don’t deliver, we will not go down without a fight. It’s also been in our DNA since the French Revolution of 1789, and so I think we have the spirit of complaint and rebellion that is inscribed into our genes.
  • Alexandre: Yes I think it’s a part of the culture. The moment something doesn’t go right, we complain. Even with colleagues, we’ll talk about the smallest of things that we don’t like. France is quite fortunate compared to other countries. We have subsidies, government aid, and social security programs. It’s only when we go abroad that we realize how lucky we are. But even then, we still like to complain anyway.
  • Cassandra: Yes, especially in Paris. Transportation is often a headache. There’s always something to say about work. There’s always something to say about your family. We just like to complain about anything and everything, I don’t know why. But for me, everyone complains, so it’s weird that you’re telling me that the French complain more. It’s normal to complain isn’t it? Do we really do it more than others?
  • Why do the French often respond in English when foreigners approach them in French?

    • Vincent: Good question. I think French people don’t like to speak French with people who don’t speak French well. Maybe they’re worried that they won’t be understood. That’s why they switch to English, or rather a language that they think is English haha.
    • Alexandre: When I used to work at the Chateau de Versailles, I would reply to American and Japanese tourists in French when they tried to speak in French, and they appreciated it. Otherwise I normally switch to English because I know that the French language is difficult. And especially when the person makes too many mistakes in French, my ears cry haha.
    • Cassandra: Maybe it’s because we know it’s hard to speak French and so we respond in English to facilitate the exchange. Or maybe it’s also because people want to practice their English. I don’t think it’s meant to be mean.

    Deep down, are the French jealous of English speakers?

    • Vincent: Wow! Well maybe yes, because anglophones can travel anywhere in the world and everyone speaks English but not French. We have to learn English even for the smallest of jobs, while anglophones can very well speak only English without it ever hindering their career or their desire to travel the world. So yes, I would say there is some jealousy.
    • Alexandre: There’s no jealousy… Well it’s true that French people would love for everyone to speak French, that’s for sure. In Europe, French is still quite spoken. If you go to the European Parliament, you’ll see that. And for the Olympics, there’s always something in French because it’s the official language. But yes it’s a shame that we can’t speak French everywhere. In school we learn English so we can get by, but maybe for the generation of our parents or grandparents it’s more difficult to. The younger generation starts learning English from a very young age.
    • Cassandra: From my point of view, it’s true that people have a lot more access to information in English. I wouldn’t say jealous but maybe envious in that regard. Too bad French isn’t the universal language.

    What do you really think about Americans?

    • Vincent: It’s always been El Dorado for the French, the country where everything is possible. But for a few years now it’s also become the country where people can’t even place a country on the map, which for us is so easy. Among Americans there’s such a mix. There are people who have incredible success because their country gave them the possibility to explore without limits. But there are also many Americans who have been left behind and are viewed as the idiots of the world.
    • Alexandre: They’re always happy. I don’t know if it’s just fake… When I went to the US, everyone always looked happy. On the one hand it’s nice, but at the same time I don’t know if it’s really genuine.
    • Cassandra: I would love to visit to have a real opinion. It seems to be a country of freedom, where the American dream can be dreamt and realized from nothing. But I also have quite a negative perception of the country. Food wise, I’m not interested; I can’t imagine what I would want to eat there. However, they do seem to have very beautiful landscapes. Americans are open minded too. They seem to be more welcoming towards foreigners, even though their customs agents are scary.

    What is your favourite place outside of France?

    • Vincent: It would be Canada, specifically Vancouver. I have an exceptional girlfriend from Canada whom I met there.
    • Alexandre: I really like Greece, it’s a beautiful country. There are lots of islands and archeological sites to see. I went to Rhodes and it was a very nice city. Their food is healthy too. Their Mediterranean recipes have a lot of vegetables. The weather is great and winters are mild. It’s a nice place to visit.
    • Cassandra: I like Taiwan. It’s a country where women can feel safe. I love the ocean, the onsens, everything that is water and nature. I also quite like India. Their food is delicious, it’s lively and colorful. These are my top two, if I had to choose.

    What do you like most about France?

    • Vincent: Its culture and history. Though it may be tainted with lots of wars, it’s such a rich history that at school it’s a real struggle to learn and memorize everything. Not all countries can claim to have this. The country promotes and preserves art and cinema at all costs. You see all the cultural heritage just by walking in the streets, with Paris being one of the most beautiful cities in the world if for nothing else than its architecture. This is what I’m most proud of.
    • Alexandre: Food. We have excellent gastronomic traditions and there are so many Michelin starred chefs in France. We are lucky to have such a diverse local cuisines, including those of Brittany, Normandy, Strasbourg etc. And in terms of pastries we are spoiled too. Everyone likes a good baguette and croissant.
    • Cassandra: I love eating pastries and cakes. Paris is pretty too. We have access to lots of activities for not much or even free. For example, before I turned 25 I took advantage of all of the museums that I could visit for free. So cultural experiences in Paris are not too expensive.

    One thing that you would change about France?

    • Vincent: I would change French people. It’s true that our country is one of the most beautiful in the world with an enviably rich history, but the French just don’t have a mentality that is up to par. I think that if we want to sustain our image à la française that once evoked excellence and elegance, the current way of thinking is not enough. Because I think people lack the desire to work and improve upon themselves.
    • Alexandre: Hm… for people to complain less, we were talking about it earlier. I would encourage people to visit other countries because in doing so, they can see that people in Asia, for example, are warm and happy, even those who don’t have much materially. They don’t have social security or state programs, and yet they are happy as they are. In France we have so much and yet we still complain a lot.
    • Cassandra: Transportation, for it to be easier and cheaper to travel between cities and within Paris. Also the weather in the winter, I don’t like the cold.

    Do you have a message for those reading this who are interested in France?

    • Vincent: Don’t believe everything you see on the surface, nor the clichés that France or the French might evoke. Come explore for yourself instead of believing what you see on TV or social media. France remains a beautiful destination to visit. There are many things to do and you won’t be disappointed.
    • Alexandre: Don’t hesitate to visit elsewhere than Paris, there are so many beautiful places. France is rich with diverse landscapes and monuments. There really is more than just Paris. In the South and Normandy, there is the sea. Even when I see documentaries, it makes me want to visit other corners of France.
    • Cassandra: It’s a very beautiful country to visit, and with great food. But don’t have too high of expectations of the French themselves. If they happen to be nice to you then great. If not, then… voilà.

In February 2023 I moved from Vancouver to Paris. Adventures await.
En février 2023 j’ai déménagé de Vancouver à Paris. Des aventures m’attendent.

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(1) Comment

Hong I |

Wow, such a great article! I’ve learned a lot from Jackson’s articles. This one is from insiders’ thoughts towards the questions from outsiders, which helps me better understand France and French culture. Well done, Jackson 👍!