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How to be French Part 1

Many people will say well you’re French if you’re born French – but is it really as simple as that? And what makes French people uniquely French? I can tell you that coming from London as I do, and now having lived in France for many years, I know that there are certain things that French people do that make them stand out as French – such as dunking a buttery, flaky croissant in a bowl or cup of coffee! I’ve studied what it means to be French – and lived the life and here’s what I’ve found…

Things the French do that make them French

I’ve thought long and hard about how to be French – I’ve even written a book about it (see bottom of this post!). And covered it in a podcast (listen here). For me, I don’t think that you can just say being born in France is the only way to be French. I know French people who live outside of France, or whose children may have been born outside of France, but still they are “French” in the sense that they seem French, do French things…

For instance, cheese being served BEFORE dessert. Yes – in France the cheese course doesn’t come last. You eat your Camembert and Brie before your crème brulee. And my French girlfriend Isabel who is really into nutrition tells me that you should never have coffee with the dessert course – it makes the cheese solidify she says – not a nice thought!

French women are not all slim!

And there is a myth that “all French women are slim” – in fact there are books written about it. Well let me enlighten you – all French women are NOT slim! They’re normal! French women are real, not fantasy figures able to hold off weight in a magical way. But… and it’s a big but (excuse the pun). But statistically, French women tend to be more slim than women in say the UK or the US. Much has been written on the topic. Books, magazine articles, blogs and recipes galore. But in the end I think that it boils down to a few key things: Willpower, choice and lessons learned early in life.

It takes willpower to walk away from the boulangerie and the patisserie, to say no to all those gorgeous cakes. It takes immense effort to eat just a little bit of cheese when there’s so much to choose from. And the wine. And the gastronomy which is so good it has UNESCO listed status. But it’s more than just willpower. It’s also about habits that back up the willpower from a young age. The French aren’t massive snackers and it’s a habit formed early in life.

No snacking

French kids are not encouraged to snack between meals. The only exception is after school/before dinner. Lunch is at noon, dinner is generally around 7 pm to 8 pm or later. It’s a long time for kids to go without food so a small snack is given at around 4.30 pm. Known as goûter, which literally means to taste, it’s an institution in France. And it’s almost exclusively a sweet treat. Cake, chouquettes are particularly popular, biscuits, a piece of baguette wrapped around a chunk of chocolate. Or slathered in nutella.

Some kids grow out of the snack phase when they become adults. Some don’t. That’s where the willpower comes in.

And of course some French people snack or else there wouldn’t be rows and rows of sweets and biscuits at the supermarket. But I’m astonished by how many of my French friends simply don’t snack.

Hmmm but does not snacking, eating cheese before dessert and dunking your croissant in your coffee make you French?

Non – it does not.

French language

Lets talk language.

Oh la la. It’s such a French expression. In English we often say “oh la la” in a tone of ooher… but in France when you say oh la la it’s generally meant to indicate something you’re not happy with – and the unhappier you are, the more la las. I’ve heard French people say oh la la la la, or even oh la la la la la la la. Maybe more, but you get the picture… Perhaps when you go to get your train to Paris at the train station and arrive to be told that there is a strike. Which leads to another very French thing – the right to strike. 

Striking is a national sport in France

Oh yes. Striking and protesting is a national sport in France. That’s how unions negotiate with the government. All the time. There is the normal way: discussing and then, if there is a disagreement: arguing and protesting. And there is the French way: protesting, arguing (being on strike) and then discussing. Some people say that this behaviour started during the French revolution in 1789 and never stopped since…

I’m talking ’bout a Revolution

And talking of the French Revolution let’s get on to topics of scarves, maybe it dates back to when people lost their heads and tied a scarf? No not really, I’m kidding. But when I first came to France it was very clear to me that French people are obsessed with and addicted to scarves. Both men and women wear scarves at every opportunity. An American friend told me that she has learned 57 ways to tie a scarf in an attempt to be more French before she goes for her citizenship test to become resident. I told her I’m pretty sure they won’t ask you tie a scarf! They may though ask you about the French Revolution and the French motto that was born from it:Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

I once asked my mayor why he was wearing a scarf on a summer’s day and he said (in a French accent) “one – it looks good” and “two I don’t catch a cold, I have to make a speech later today and the scarf protects my throat”.

The French LOVE to talk

Ok now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty of Frenchness – talking. French people LOVE to talk. If there is a way to say something using one hundred words instead of ten, you can be absolutely sure they will go for it. Every single event I have ever been to in France has started late because, given an opportunity to make a speech, a French man or woman simply cannot pass up the chance to make a speech. A French audience accepts this as normal, foreigners are completely bemused by it. Whether it is the opening of a road, a restaurant or a play – everything that can possible be started with a long drawn out dialogue is considered an opportunity to use the skills of language, a highly prized talent in France.

Sometimes debates sound like arguments, full on, abusive, yelling at each other rows. Monsieur and Madame J – I’m not going to tell you their names in case anyone knows them – who live across the road from me often scream at each other, trading insults and accusations that anyone who walks by, or lives opposite them like me, can hear. Their ‘debates’ go on for a long time sometimes.

Jean-Claude, my neighbour, tells me that being able to debate in public in this way is seen as a sign of a healthy relationship, your partnership is close enough that you can talk to each other this way and still be friends, lovers, married even, after it’s over. He has a point perhaps.

The local bar is where everyone knows your name

When we go to our local bar – there is always a lot of debating going on. It ranges from the gossipy type, perhaps about how much everyone hates Monique the barmaid’s yappy little dog, to what President Macron is getting up to in Paris, or just down the road from where we live in the seaside town of Le Touquet where he has a holiday home. Discussions about the goings on at the Elysées Palace are spoken of as if everyone in the bar is on first name terms with the President and his nearest and dearest.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think old Monsieur Dubarre – who we all know has never been further than Picardy, spent the week in Paris as an invisible spy since he has an opinion on everything from what Madame Macron had for breakfast (he reckons she has two egg whites and a slice of melon, abstains from lunch, and has vegetables and meat for dinner – yes she does have willpower) to whether President Macron should have met with this world leader or that and what he should have said or done.

French kids learn to debate

Being able to talk for hours on end is considered a very good thing in France. At school French kids learn to debate as a matter of course. A wildly popular French TV documentary in 2016 called A Haute Voix (Aloud) pulled in the punters with its preview promotion which read: “Speaking well is the key to social advancement and what is better than a beautiful and long speech? Nothing. Is not a beautiful and long speech to be heard, understood and acclaimed? It is an ancient art that has a name: eloquence…” The programme followed teenagers who took part in verbal contests to prove their oral worth by “arguing, whispering, arguing more, laughing, haranguing and arguing again”.

Blimey. When I was at school, we had clubs where we learned to disco dance or make paper flowers.

Talk, talk

There’s even a TV show in France called Le Grand Oral which definitely isn’t as exciting as it might sound to some. Basically 12 amateur speakers compete against each other to give the best speech before a Jury, not the sort of talent show most of us are used to. It’s very earnest and there’s not a lot of laughing. French audiences lap it up, the more passionate, dramatic and eloquent the speaker, the more everyone French seems utterly mesmerised. One of the speeches gained more than 10 million views on social media networks. The old saying that “sometimes not speaking says more than all the words in the world” doesn’t apply in France.

Janine Marsh is Author of How to be French: Eat, Drink, Dress, Travel, Love (Published October 2023)

Her international best-selling series: My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream,  My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France are available as ebooks, in print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online.

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