Society - Culture
By: - at January 16, 2015

15 Unique Aspects of French Culture

French culture has been dynamically shaped by significant historical events as well as the unique geography of the European region that France inhabits. The landscape of France drastically changes from one region to another and culture, in turn, varies greatly from region to region.

France Regional Map
By Shaund via Wikimedia Commons

The Pyrenees Mountains, which comprise the southern border between France and Spain, have many customs and cultural aspects that are deeply rooted in Basque heritage. This region is referred to as Southwestern France and is home to the micro-country Andorra. Many people who are of Basque decent, properly referred to as French Basque Country among French nationals, live in the Southwestern region of France huddled near the Spanish border. Responsible for the origin of the game of jai-alai, this region has been described by many travel aficionados as a gateway to the past. The Basque have remained mostly unchanged even with the proliferation of many modern customs and cultural characteristics nipping at their borders.

View of Mt. Urkulu in the Western Pyrenees - Heart of French Basque Country:
View of Mt. Urkulu in the Western Pyrenees - Heart of French Basque Country
By Iñaki LLM via Wikimedia Commons

Moving Eastward towards the Italian and Swiss borders are the French alps. Of the Alps that occupy southeastern France would most notably be Mont Blanc and the Chamonix ski area. The Chamonix ski area is most notable for a large ski reception area that has been hollowed out of an area just below the summit of Mont Blanc which includes a shopping area, restaurants, and observation decks which are constructed within and on the exterior of Mont Blanc.

Observation Deck on Top of Mount Blanc Overlooking Chamonix Valley:
Observation Deck on Top of Mount Blanc Overlooking Chamonix Valley
By Paul Nash via Wikimedia Commons

Political movements with domestic policy changes as their primary motivators are both a source of French cultural change as well as source of many French political movements. Democracy and political movements in France have made French politics a primary source of study for many political science majors in the United States as well as in other western countries around the world. Outside foreign occupation and hostile sieges like The Nazi Occupation during World War II and Napoleon's unsuccessful attempt at conquering all of Europe including Russian during what Russians refer to as the Patriotic War of 1812. These two heavy handed foreign manipulations have remarkably altered the course of not only French history, but French culture as well.

Map of French Empire in 1812 - (Click to Enlarge and Read):
Map of French Empire in 1812 - (Click to Enlarge and Read)

These two international situations are no doubt the most important foreign originated sources of change for French culture throughout modern history. These international situations led not only to the exile of Napoleon, but France's dynamically adaptive culture that it has gained international notoriety for. The reach of foreign influence can be readily seen by recognizing the dynamically varying customs and cultures that vary from one region of France to another.

Imperial Standard of Napoleon - State Flag of Confederation of the Rhine:
Imperial Standard of Napoleon - State Flag of Confederation of the Rhine
By Mnmazur via Wikimedia Commons

Since the 17th Century, France has played a large role in the creation and maintenance of high culture. Emerging during the 19th Century, French influence can easily be recognized in cuisine, couture, as well as cinema. Paris has served as the epicenter  for the pulse of design leading many to refer to France, and Paris in particular, as one of the most cultured locales in all of Europe. The Parisian lifestyle is earmarked with many world-renowned museums such as The Louvre which houses the infamous Mona Lisa and Monet's beautiful mural, Water Lilies.

Claude Monet's Water Lilies at The Louvre:
Claude Monet's Water Lillies at The Louvre
By gigi4791 via Wikimedia Commons

There is easily an entire lifetime someone could spend learning about France and French culture. In an attempt to provide a brief cliff notes if you will of French culture, here is a list of the 15 most significant parts of French culture that serve as a starting point for the Francophile inside each and every one of us. 

15)  National Religion
Religion has always played a pivotal role in European culture since before the middle ages, and even today the affects of religion in Europe can still be distinctly seen in Spain, France, England, and Italy. In Europe during the 1300s, religion began gaining more and more importance as the monarchies that dotted most of Western Europe needed to reinforce their claim to the throne via divine rite. In France, freedom of religion is practiced and indeed guaranteed, thanks to the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen, which was a declaration signed in 1789. Since then, the country has remained free from any ruling national religion and has cast aside its traditional, synergistic relationship between their monarchy and the Catholic church.

Important Document of the French Revolution - Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789:
Important Document of the French Revolution - Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789

There was a time when the national religion of France was Catholicism, but since then, despite most religious people being Catholic, anybody is free to practice whatever religion they like. Today, a wide range of religions are practiced in France, including Islam, Protestantism, Judaism, Russian Orthodoxy and Sikhism. The country is, in turn, both multicultural and multiconfessional.

France may enjoy a period now without national religion but it must be noted here that the French are deeply rooted in Catholicism and it is common place for many to celebrate what is known as their saint's day in addition to their birthday. Their saint's day is determined by the church calendar where confirmation names determine a corresponding date with the church calendar. The religious as well as non-devout, can both enjoy what is ultimately a second birthday each year.

The French, for almost the entire period prior to 1789, were very staunchly Catholic. French history even overlaps with one of the most severe fracturing of the Catholic Church in modern history known as the schism. At this time there were actually two claims for the papacy - one in Rome and one in Avignon; yes two separate claims to the papacy! There was even a Papal Palace erected to house the opposing claim to the papal throne.

Papal Palace or Palais des Papes de Avignon:
Papal Palace or Palais des Papes de Avignon
By Jean-Marc ROSIER via Wikimedia Commons

14)  The State
The role of the state in France has changed dramatically over time, with the revolution of 1789 overthrowing the democracy and implementing a brand new system of government and control.

Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor M. de Launay - July 14, 1789:
Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor M. de Launay - July 14, 1789

Traditionally, however, the state has always had an important role when enforcing culture, whether it’s a matter of education, culture or the economy.

Depiction of the Storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792 by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux:
Depiction of the Storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792 by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux

The French state and its culture have a long relationship that goes back to the times of the French Monarchy. State policies throughout history have also been designed to unite the country around cultural norms, but as the country has become increasingly multicultural, the right wing of politics has begun thriving, with conservative parties performing well and even the Front Nationale, which calls for a halt to immigration and ‘Islamisation’ of the country. The rise in conservatism across the country shows that the state has not always had a strong relationship with culture because of bureaucracy or desire for control by the political classes, but because the French people wanted it to.

"Liberty Leading the People" - By Eugene Delacroix Commemorating French Revolution of 1830:
"Liberty Leading the People" - By Eugene Delacroix Commemorating French Revolution of 1830

13)  Social Classes
Social classes in France have a large impact on the culture of the country. Today, there is a social structure that remains pretty much just as it was during the 1950s. There are three classes that may often be split up into sub-sections. The first section is the upper class. This class is made of up wealthy families, businessmen, CEOs and politicians. For instance, this class would include the President, his cabinet, the leaders of political parties and the CEO of French company, Airbus.

Fabrice Bregier - Current CEO of Airbus:
Fabrice Bregier - Current CEO of Airbus
Courtesy of USA Today

The middle class group is by far the largest group in France. This social class is made up of people who have white-collar jobs. These kinds of jobs include the senior managers of companies, and those who can have a moderately high income buy mostly a stable, annual income.

Finally, there is the lower class that consists largely of people who work in blue-collar, manual labor roles. This class also includes people who work in retail and similar roles. This class can be defined by those who have a relatively small income, or an unsecured income. Over the last couple of decades, industries have changed in France, meaning that the amount of blue-collar jobs that are available have decreased massively.

12)  Regional Customs
France has many regions, and in each region there are noticeably different customs and cultures. France is the result of a nation building its own ideals of centuries, and today, there are regions with their own fashion, religions, accents, foods and general ways of life. Historic French provinces include places like Normandy, Berry, Brittany, Dauphine and Poitou. Regional identification in the 21st Century generally revolves around life style and socioeconomic status. For time purposes we will focus on the region of Normandy.

Map of the French Province Normandy:
Map of the French Province Normandy:

The reason why socioeconomic status is one of the most defining features between different regions is because of industrialization and immigration into the country during the 19th and 20th Centuries. These processes created regional communities in France that are urban, suburban and rural. Each society, in turn, creates its own traditions and unique appearance.  Below is the Mount Saint-Michel Abbey. What makes Mount Saint-Michel Abbey so interesting is that the tides of the English Channel actually wash the road leading to Mount Saint Michel whenever the region is experiencing high-tide. During low-tide the road, visible in the bottom left of the photograph below, is opened to the public and traffic commences on and off of the island. Mount Saint Michel actually has times during the day that no one can venture on and off the island unless they wish to get very muddy and wet!

Mount Saint-Michel Normandy:
Mount Saint-Michel Normandy

Some typical customs include puppet shows on Christmas Eve, dinner after Mass on Christmas Eve or other religious events. There is also a five-week holiday in France, whereby employees in different regions of the country are legally entitled to five weeks of paid leave from work. Other traditions revolve around the celebration of historic events, like Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789.

"July 14th in the Country" - By: Tadeusz Makowski in Honor of Bastille Day:
"July 14th in the Country" - By: Tadeusz Makowski in Honor of Bastille Day

11)  Alcohol Culture
France once believed that its culture was totally immune to binge drinking, which is a phenomenon that has hit the United Kingdom and the United States. For a great deal of time, the French culture of drinking in cafes and restaurants, in moderation, meant that the country remained relatively civilized when it came to the consumption of alcohol. However, recent changes in culture have meant that the country has had to increase the legal drinking age from 16 to 18.

Alcohol Culture
By Mick Stephenson via Wikimedia Commons

Today, France has a culture of young people drinking far too much in the urban areas. In the more rural areas, however, the traditional attitude to alcohol and, wine in particular, has remained relatively the same. The French enjoy alcoholic beverages like wine and distilled liquors, and in the rural areas do not indulge in mass produced and low quality alcoholic drinks. Alcohol is seen as an accompaniment to food.

Vineyard in French Wine Region of Montbrun-des-Corbieres:
Vineyard in French Wine Region of Montbrun-des-Corbieres
By dynamosquito via Wikimedia Commons

It is entirely normal for a French family to introduce young children to wine from a young age, meaning that they will become accustomed to drinking it as they grow up.

Burgundy - French Wine Region:
 Burgundy - French Wine Region
By Megan Mallen via Wikimedia Commons

10)  Media
The media plays an important role in any country’s national culture, given that it doesn’t just report on happenings in the country, but also shapes them. The media of France, while still playing a significant part in national culture, is not as influential as it is in other European countries, and nowhere near as influential as it is in the United States.

French TV Helicopter:
French TV Helicopter
By DS Pugh via Wikimedia Commons

In general, the French do not read newspapers as frequently as other countries. In fact, it is believed that less than 200 adults out of 1,000 read a newspaper every day.

French Newspaper Ouest France Today Section:
French Newspaper Ouest France Today Section

The history of the French media goes back hundreds of years, but it came most prevalent after the Second World War, when the press media became particularly popular. It was only a year after the war had ended when 28 papers were being printed regularly in France with a combined readership of around 6,000,000.

This did not last, however, and in just seven years, the readership of newspapers was slashed by around half. The decline is blamed on the rise of the broadcast media, which is significantly more popular in France. 80 newspapers are printed daily in France today, and there are many free papers and magazines that are handed out in the inner cities, but the Internet and television remain the most popular form of media.

9)  Art
French art has been prominent throughout a number of its periods of history, beginning in the prehistoric times and moving up to modern day. Before France even existed, the landmass that soon became the country was home to some of the earliest ‘artists’. Currently, the earliest known artwork in Europe can be found in Europe and is though to be as old as 40,000 years old.

The Celtic and Roman periods saw the implementation of artwork on armor and architecture, and then through the medieval period, there was Carolingaian art and Merovingian art.

From "Utrecht Psalter" - 9th Century Naturalistic and Energetic Line Drawings were New and Most Influential Innovation of Carolingian Renaissance (780 to 900 AD):
From "Utrecht Psalter" - 9th Century Naturalistic and Energetic Line Drawings were New and Most Influential Innovation of Carolingian Renaissance (780 to 900 AD)

The 1500s saw the introduction of the Early Modern period of art, which moved on to the Baroque and Classicist phase. Today, France is also home to some of the most impressive collections of artworks from all over the world. Notorious museums in Paris include the internationally renowned Louvre museum, Petit Palais and MuseeCarnavalet.

The most famous artists of France are also some of the most infamous in the whole art world. One of these infamous French artists includes Vincent Van Gogh, the experimental and eccentric artist known for cutting off his own ear.

"Self-Portrait" by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889:
"Self-Portrait" by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889

Famous French artists also include Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and the pioneering sculptor and contemporary artist, Marcel Duchamp.

"Impression Sunrise" By Claude Monet in 1872:
"Impression Sunrise" By Claude Monet in 1872

8)  Music
Music plays a large part in the culture of France in the modern world, and has done for centuries previously. Some of the most famous styles to be played and developed in France include Celtic, electronic, house, hip hop, Gregorian, classical, opera, chanson, folk and cancan music. The country has its own charts known as the SNEP, and every year, a wide range of festivals are held that feature modern and traditional music alike, including the Bourges festival, Hellfest and Rock en Seine.

The Hives Playing at Rock en Seine:
The Hives Playing at Rock en Seine
By Bertrand via Wikimedia Commons

France has produced a huge amount of classical music in history, and is proud to be the home of some of the most legendary composes of romantic music. Not only that, but the earliest sound recording device we know of was designed and patented in France. The device was called the phonautograph, and was developed in 1857.

1859 Model of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's Phonautograph:
1859 Model of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinvillle's Phonautograph

Today, the long history of music in the nation remains significant, with contemporary music continuing to be developed and built upon by composers and artists.

7)  Theater
Theater in France, much like its music, can be dated back as far as the medieval days. The country, however, is most famous for its theater productions during the Renaissance period. It was during the 16th Century that French theater began to flourish and change. Before this period, the theater in France remained mostly the same from medieval times, where comedies, histories, and tragedies were most popular.

Title Page of First Folio by William Shakespeare - 1623:
Title Page of First Folio by William Shakespeare - 1623

During the Renaissance, theatrical performances in Paris had tight regulations placed upon them by guilds. It was in the last couple of decades of the 16th Century, however, that these guilds began to disappear, and exclusive rights were eventually given to the capital. Theaters soon began opening in the capital city and alongside the public theaters, a number of private theaters began appearing. This allowed for the performance of some more modern plays for the time, as well as brand new productions written by French playwrights.

Theatre de la Renaissance in 1873 - Paris:
Theatre de la Renaissance in 1873 - Paris

The 20th Century saw perhaps the biggest change since the 16th Century, however, when a greater range of plays and playwrights began appearing. Works by French writers were performed alongside world theater, and pieces written by William Shakespeare. The mid-20th Century also saw the rise of the avant-garde, where traditional plays began to disappear in favor of contemporary and experimental pieces. Today, theaters remain open all over the country, and Paris has become a hub for theater lovers across France and the rest of Europe.

Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris, France Present Day:
 Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris, France Present Day
By Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons

6)  Literature
The most popular pieces of French literature include pieces written as far back a 1846, with one of the most popular old titles being The Count of Monte Cristo. Other pieces like Candide by Voltaire go back even further, with the first edition of the book being published in 1759.

Alexander Dumas, Author of Count of Monte Cristo, in 1855:
Alexander Dumas, Author of Count of Monte Cristo, in 1855

Generally, French literature refers to any form of text that was initially written in the French language, and much like French art and theater, the history can be traced back to Medieval times. French literature can also refer to literature written by those who live in France, but spoke other languages.

Some of the oldest literature found in the whole of Western Europe was in fact written in Medieval French, which is a romance language that originally formed from Latin. For this reason, France is known to be home to some of the oldest literature in the West. Later in the 14th Century, the Italians started producing a great deal more literature, but it was in the 16th Century that France became significant again, and in the 17th Century, French literature was once again dominant. A number of literary movements have passed through the nation, including Symbolism, Naturalism, Surrealism and Existentialism.

Today, the country continues to produce world-renowned pieces of literature, with the last French Nobel Prize winner for literature being J.M.G. Le Clezio in 2008. Other winners include Gao Xingjian, who writes in Chinese, Claude Simon, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint-John Perse and a host of others dating back to 1901.

Claude Simon in 1967:
Claude Simon in 1967
By Materialscientist via Wikimedia Commons

5)  Architecture
Architecture in France is one of the most defining features of its cities, and one of the most famous pieces of architectural is the Eiffel Tower. The tower has become well known all over the world, and was erected way back in 1889. The tower is made of an iron lattice and can be found in Paris. The tower was once the tallest structure in the world, and today remains as the tallest structure to exist in the whole of Paris. The tower, in 2010, had officially received more than 250 million visitors.

Eiffel Tower and Jardins du Trocadero from the Palais de Chaillot, Paris:
Eiffel Tower and Jardins du Trocadero from the Palais de Chaillot, Paris
By NonOmnisMoriar via Wikimedia Commons

Architecture in general, in France, is considered one of the crowning glories of the country. The Insitut de France, or French Institute announced in 1671 that architecture in the country would become a special focus for the French people and their culture.

The French Institute:
The French Institute
By Benh LIEU SONG via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the country’s history, architectural styles have changed a great deal. The country has seen Gallo-Roman, Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Second Empire, Art Deco and Modernist architecture. Today, modern architecture in its cities and towns take influence from the many variations throughout history, and implement modernist and postmodernist influences as well.

Art Deco Doors on the Cochise County Courthouse in Arizona:
Art Deco Doors on the Cochise County Courthouse in Arizona

The country also has regional architecture, which means that designs have never stayed entirely consistent throughout the country. Instead, different regions changed at different times, resulting in a wide range of architectural styles within particular time frames.

4)  Sport
Sport is another part of French culture that is considered immensely important by the French people. The country has a long sporting history, and much like Germany and the United Kingdom, the most popular form of sport in the nation is football. The nation is also known for the annual Tour de France bicycle race.

Football has more than two million licensed players, as of 2009 statistics, in France. The sport initially came from England in the 19th Century, but it soon gained a large amount of followers, mostly from Northern France.

The Tour de France is a multiple stage bicycle race and this is what most people consider to be the ‘most French’ when it comes to sporting in the country. The race takes place in July, and involves cycling professionals from all over the world. The race is organized by the Amaury Sport Organization, and it has been operating since 1903. The only times when the tour has never taken place were during the First and Second World Wars.

First Tour De France Winner Marice Garin, Paris, 1903:
First Tour De France Winner Marice Garin, Paris, 1903

Another popular sport that is not well known in the United States is handball. As of 2009 statistics, there were nearly 400,000 registered players of the game in France. The French are the world leaders in handball, being the current Olympic Champions of the sport.

Fabian Cancellara at the 2010 Tour de France:
Fabian Cancellara at the 2010 Tour de France
By Thomas Ducroquet via Wikimedia Commons

3)  Food
France is known for many reasons, and its great food is one of them. No, it’s not all about onions and frog legs! The country is home to traditional foods and modern, pioneering dishes, but soupe'oignon is certainly a favorite in restaurants across the world. Translate, this is simply onion soup, and it is a traditional French dish that is made of onions and beef stock. The soup is then served with croutons, and with a layer on melted cheese over the top. The origins of the onion soup can be dated back to the time of the Roman Empire, but the current version was first used in the 18th Century.


France is of course known for its fine wines, but great wine simply doesn’t feel right without some French cheese. Throughout French, plates of cheese are often served up after the main course, before dessert, and with a French wine. The cheese span from brie to blue cheese.

A lesser-known treat is known as Flamiche, and translated into English, this simply means ‘Flemish’. The savory dish is a pie that has been filled with vegetables and cheese. The classic dish is sometimes served like a pizza, essentially making it a cheese and vegetable pie without a crust on the top.

2)  Fashion
Fashion is easily one of the biggest parts of French culture that people all over the Western world can associate with. The French are considered to be world leaders in fashion, along with the likes of Italy. The nation is one of the world leaders in the fashion industry, and this has nearly always been the case.

French design first became prominent and popular between the 15th and 20th Centuries, when France was experimenting with new styles of art, and artists were coming up with innovative new styles that became popular the world over. Today, fashion remains one of the biggest exports for the country, along with wine. The country is home to some of the biggest fashion houses in the world, including Chanel, Chlore, Hermes, Lanvin, Rochas, Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior.

Boutique Chanel Joailleire - 18 Place Vendome, Paris:
Boutique Chanel Joailleire - 18 Place Vendome, Paris
By Eric Pouhier via Wikimedia Commons

During the Second World War, many fashion houses in Paris closed down, but by 1947, the ‘New Look’ appeared. As fashion once again became prominent after the end of the war, a number of new collections appeared that included majestic dresses and skirts. Fabric was once again being used in excess in fashion, and in 1952, famous designer Coco Chanel returned to Paris. From here, the fashion industry boomed, and the 1960s welcomed the introduction of ‘high fashion’.

1)  The Concept of ‘French’
The most significant thing to consider when talking about French culture is what exactly it means to be French, and what French culture really is. The definition of culture stays the same regardless of the nation one is discussing. Culture includes the beliefs, systems, values and institutions of a nation, a group of people or other wider organization. In France, the concept of culture is difficult to describe as values, beliefs and institutions change drastically depending on what part of France you are considering.

"Hour of Triumph: Parisians Join the Parade Following Allied Victory over Nazis - August 1944:
"Hour of Triumph: Parisians Join the Parade Following Allied Victory over Nazis - August 1944

This seems to have been the case for hundreds of years, and even in the 18th Century, metropolitan France was still a mixture of different cultures and values. Today, when discussing French culture, it is simplest to talk about the many values, beliefs and trends that have swept across the country, regardless of the region it might have originated, or even stayed. Today, however, many people in rural France, and conservatives in metropolitan France, believe that the national culture is under threat as a result of globalization, multiculturalism and Americanization. It is certainly true that in the last 20 years, immigrant communities have changed culture to some extent, and the free market of the European Union has allowed for culture to change and adapt to market conditions.

All in all, France is rich in history and culture. Whether you wish to discuss the original cultures of the French regions, or the cultures that have appeared and emerged in France since the 1960s, it is fair to say that the country has an impressive range of values and traditions.

Even today, France is creating new traditions and values. Ever since the revolution and the implementation of individual rights, the country’s art, literary, fashion, food and sporting fields have flourished and become more diverse and dynamic than ever.





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