7 surprising French traditions

7 surprising French traditions

by Clara Avrillier

Updated August 12, 2022

Every country has its traditions — it’s part of a place’s national identity. It also gives visitors an inside look at what the country is all about, what it has to offer and the history of the place. The list of French traditions is long — some of them are well-known while others may come as a surprise. This article provides a list of seven surprising French traditions, from food and drink customs to school in the country. They are all an important part of French culture so they’re great to learn if you’re planning on visiting, or if you’re simply interested in learning more about French customs.

  1. Formal greetings 
  2. Informal greetings
  3. Arriving late to a dinner party
  4. Cheese before dessert but after the main course
  5. Wedding cake or work of art?
  6. French holidays – faire le pont
  7. School in France

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1. Formal greetings

When it comes to greeting people in France, the rules change depending on the formality of the situation. Let’s imagine you head into a supermarket in France. The French custom is to always say hello and goodbye to the shop assistant, whether it be when you enter the shop or when you need help. For example, if you need to ask where to find the milk, you would say:

Bonjour. Pourriez-vous me dire où se trouve le lait? 

Hello. Could you please tell me where to find milk?

It might seem odd to say hello in this example, however it is a very important French custom to be aware of.

2. Informal greetings

This is where things get fun – with the famous bises (kisses). Many people know that a characteristic of French culture is to kiss people on the cheek when you meet them. This generally only applies to close friends, family and co-workers (once you get to know them). But what you may not know is that the number of kisses depends on where you are in France. In Marseille for example it is two times (one on each cheek). Heading up to Avignon, it’s three whereas if you go to Nantes, it will be four times! 

3. Arriving late to a dinner party

Yes, you read it right. When heading to a dinner party in France, it’s never a good idea to arrive on time or, even worse, early! Most people expect you to turn up maybe 10-15 minutes late, hence allowing your hosts time to add the finishing touches to the table. Bonus point: Don’t take wine as a gift…your hosts have already got that covered!

4. Cheese before dessert but after the main course

Cheese in France is almost a tradition in itself. And make no mistake, the French do not mess around when it comes to cheese. A true French custom is to always have cheese at lunch or dinner, whether at home, in a restaurant or at a dinner party. What’s odd and may take time to get used to is when the French serve cheese: after the main course but before dessert! 

5. Wedding cake or work of art?

Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to a French wedding and can’t see the cake. In France, the tradition at a wedding is to serve a pièce montée – this is a dessert in the shape of a cone made out of choux pastry puffs. It can look like a work of art when it’s several inches high and decorated to perfection (often with a cake topper figurine of the happy couple). This cake is also served at other important life events, such as baptisms, communions, etc. 

6. French holidays – faire le pont

If you live or work in France, you’ll probably hear the phrase faire le pont. It translates to “make the bridge” and is linked to bank holidays in the country. If a bank holiday falls on a Thursday, the French custom is to take Friday off (thereby creating a “bridge”) so the holiday weekend is longer. In the month of May, there are an impressive four bank holidays, turning it into the shortest working month of the year.

7. School in France

The French customs regarding school are a double-edged sword. Firstly, school hours in the country are long…really long. In high school, children start around 8 am and finish around 5 pm, making for a mammoth of a day. On the other hand, school holidays in the country are also long and take place quite often. Generally, every six weeks, there are two weeks’ worth of holidays. Great news for kids, not so much for parents! 


Old habits die hard

These French traditions and characteristics of French culture are what make the country such a popular place to visit and to live. It’s always a good idea to get to know the customs and traditions of a country before you go, so we hope this article has given you some food for thought. It’s also a good time to get started with beginner French lessons – between that and learning traditions, you’ll be all sorted for a visit to France!

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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with many expats looking to move to France. Find out more on her website, ON IT Translations, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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