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21 French customs and traditions you need to know about before your next trip

A trip to France is not just about seeing beautiful landscapes and historic sites; it’s also an immersive experience into a rich culture full of unique customs and traditions. Here are 21 French customs and traditions to help you blend in and appreciate the local culture on your next trip.

Explore France on: Best of France

1. Never take wine to a dinner party

Your host has carefully chosen the wine for the evening. By bringing your own wine, you may inadvertently imply that you don’t trust the host’s taste in wine, or that you would prefer your own.

Interestingly, flowers can also be controversial – avoid chrysanthemums as the French associate it with death. If you do want to bring a gift, go for a high-quality box of chocolates, or a bottle of Cognac.

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2. Try and arrive at least 15 to 20 minutes late

While in many countries this is considered rude, in France it’s an unspoken rule. Guests will always arrive a little late – lest they surprise their host in the middle of the preparations. Of course, this only applies to dinner parties and you should be punctual for restaurant reservations.

3. Kiss, kiss

In France, most residents practice the double kiss greeting – a glancing kiss on each cheek. And, there are regions, particularly in northern France, where people favour four kisses – even five. This can catch visitors off-guard, as can potential awkwardness around which cheek to present first!

4. Always say hello and goodbye

The French will always say hello and goodbye. And, this includes greeting the shopkeeper as you enter a store, a quick hello (“bonjour”) to everyone in the waiting room as you arrive for an appointment – and a warm goodbye (“au revoir”) when you leave a conversation or exit a store.

Read more: 14 key French phrases to learn before your trip

5. You’ll have to ask for ice

The French prefer to drink their water and soft drinks at room temperature, or lightly chilled. Of course, this means you’ll have to ask for ice. And diluting wine with ice? Close to sacrilege.

6. The art of downplaying a compliment

The French never want to appear conceited or egotistical. So, there is a particularly French way of accepting a compliment, which is to downplay it at all costs. For example, acceptable responses to a compliment include: “No, not at all! You’re too kind”, “This old thing?” and “Think nothing of it, it was no trouble at all”.

7. Chivalrous to the end

French men are often quick to leap to a lady’s aid, whether it’s opening a door or helping her with her coat.  Very importantly, this unsolicited (and sometimes surprising) assistance should be interpreted as an example of French galanterie.

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stack of French baguette

8. Grab a baguette

From ficelle to brioche and pain de campagne, France’s famous boulangeries are filled to the brim with fresh loaves, croissants and pastries. In a country where classic baguette dough is actually defined by French law, you know the residents take their bread very seriously. In addition, in France, bread is often placed directly on the table rather than a plate.  

9. Drink tea from a bowl … but only at breakfast

There are some French customs that continue to baffle and confound visitors. Of course, none more so than the habit of drinking tea out of a bowl. The French enjoy drinking their morning beverage (tea or coffee) out of a small, cereal-sized bowl. This is because the beverage cools more quickly and there’s room to dip a pastry or slice of baguette into the bowl.

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10. Don’t order café au lait for a latte

Here’s another tip for morning beverages – if you’d like a coffee with foamed milk, order a “café crème”. A “café au lait” usually means the milky coffee that the French would drink at home.

11. Enjoy a long, leisurely lunch

Spend a restful hour in a Parisian café, sipping an espresso and watching the world go by, and you’ll soon realise that the French believe life is best enjoyed slowly. Instead of bolting down food to ‘refuel’, the French approach is to slow down and connect with friends and colleagues over a leisurely lunch.

12. Tipping is unnecessary

Even if you sit at a cafe or restaurant for hours, you’re never obligated to leave a tip in France. Tipping is not expected in French culture as the service is already factored into the price of your meal.

Bistro Parisien

13. Talk politics and religion

What do the French talk about over their long lunches and relaxed dinner parties?  In contrast to the rest of the world, no topic is taboo. While foreigners may shy away from discussing politics, money or religion, the French love frank, intellectual debates – and nothing is off the agenda.  

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14. Forget children’s menus

France’s love affair with good food is another cornerstone of French customs and culture. And the kids start young. Therefore, don’t expect a children’s menu if you’re traveling around France. No chicken nuggets or fish fingers in this part of the world, French children eat off the main menu.

15. Say no to plastic bags

France is leading the world in terms of banning single-use plastic, including plastic carrier bags, plates, cups and utensils. In fact, expect to pay extra for paper bags or recycled plastic bags – or carry your own. And you’ll be expected to ‘bag’ your own groceries.

16. France’s April Fools’ Day pranks are a little fishy

In France, April Fools’ Day is best-known for the poisson d’avril (April Fish), one of the French customs that dates back to 1564. Not only does this delightful and uniquely French tradition see young children pranking adults by sticking a paper fish onto their back, they also dash away swiftly and yell “poisson d’avril!”

17. Celebrate “Old Maid’s Day” in a frightfully fanciful green hat

During November, every year the French celebrate Saint Catherine’s Day. Saint Catherine is the patron saint of unmarried women, lacemakers, milliners, drapers and craftspeople.

So to mark the day, the French give single female friends or colleagues a decorative hat (often in green or yellow). Of course, this is for them to wear as a token of good luck in their quest to find a husband.

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18. Always dress your best

If you want to blend in with the stylish French locals, you’ll need to dress the part – especially in the fashion capital of Paris. Ditch the sweats and yoga pants, and opt for more chic and tailored outfits. The French view fashion as an expression of respect for both oneself and others, and a polished appearance is expected in most settings, from formal parties to everyday errands.

19. Dial it down

Loud conversations in public, especially on public transport, are frowned upon. Public spaces are highly respected in France, so keeping a low volume is a sign of consideration for others. Keep your discussions private and minimise disturbance to those around you, and you’ll fit right in.

20. No haggling in stores

In France, haggling in regular retail stores and boutiques is not part of the shopping culture. Prices are fixed and non-negotiable and are usually marked on the item, so haggling is considered inappropriate.

21. Try a few French phrases

Making an effort to speak French is not only appreciated but considered a sign of respect. French people generally value their language highly and will likely offer a warmer response when you use some simple phrases, even imperfectly. Besides the classic “bonjour” (hello) and “au revoir” (goodbye), here are some common French phrases to get you started:

  • Bonsoir (bohn-swahr) – “Good evening”
  • Merci (mehr-see) – “Thank you”
  • S’il vous plaît (seel voo pleh) – “Please”
  • Excusez-moi (ex-kew-zay mwah) – “Excuse me”
  • Où est…? (oo eh) – “Where is…?”
  • Je ne comprends pas (zhuh nuh kom-prahnd pah) – “I do not understand”
  • Parlez-vous anglais? (par-lay voo ahn-glay?) – “Do you speak English?”
  • Combien ça coûte? (kohm-byen sah koot?) – “How much does it cost?”
  • Je voudrais ça (zhuh voo-dray sah) – “I would like this”

What are your favorite French traditions? Share them in the comments below…

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