How French Traditions Work

The French take pleasure in the little things -- and the tasty ones, too.
The French take pleasure in the little things -- and the tasty ones, too.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock

France isn't all French toast and berets. For one, French toast has been a good way to use up stale bread since the Romans first invented it (and some say we just called it French toast because the French made it often), and mimes were just as popular in ancient Greece as they are on the streets of Paris.

Which leads us to a larger point: A lot of us have the wrong idea about France and what French culture truly is.

For some reason, French stereotypes -- the cigarette-smoking beret-wearer, pondering the meaning of existence with baguette in hand -- still hold a grip on foreigners. And let's be honest: There's still a strong cultural stereotype of rude, snooty French people looking down their noses at non-French visitors.

In this article, we'll not only separate French tradition from stereotype, but we'll also explain how some of these traditions developed and the role they played in shaping historical and modern French culture.

Why not start with the pesky stereotype of the French snob? Denis Bisson, cultural attaché in the San Francisco French Consulate, thinks this idea is a holdover from times when language presented more barriers. "In today's globalized world, differences in social behavior and etiquette tend to be less visible," Bisson says. "France is one of the most visited countries in the world, Paris being the No. 1 capital city, and the French are more and more aware of the necessity (and the pleasure that goes with it!) to be more welcoming. A generation ago, language was a barrier, it's less and less the case now, when people have a better command of English."

While studying French traditions, it's also helpful to keep in mind the "French Paradox." That is what doctors call the seemingly puzzling low rates of heart disease and obesity in a culture that eats three times as much fat as the average American diet. One good reason for this paradox is that although they consume three times more fat than Americans, they eat it in smaller portions at a time and avoid trans fats from processed foods.

This idea -- that quality of life should be cultivated and savored -- doesn't just apply to the French approach to food.

From fashion to the arts, the French take pride in not just tradition, but the depth and origins of their way of life. Studying American culture, we might start out with a description of the working habits of the United States. But let's approach this the French way and jump into something more leisurely as we explore the vacations and holidays that the French enjoy.

French Holidays and Holiday Customs

Imagine the dogs days of August. The berries are ripe, the only breeze is near a body of water and you're stuck in your windowless cubicle, collecting data for an utterly meaningless report. "There oughta be a law," you think to yourself.

In France, there is. If you think the French tradition of enjoying life and not obsessing over work is merely lip service, you're incorrect. The government guarantees -- by law -- five weeks paid vacation for all workers. That's one week over the Christmas holiday, and four weeks in the summer to reflect on how lucky you are to live in France.

Schoolchildren receive a week's vacation at the end of October (just imagine the Halloween costumes you could have dreamt up with that time), two weeks in December, two more in February, two in spring and the entire months of July and August. Kind of makes President's Day seem a little sad, doesn't it?

On Christmas Eve, French perform a puppet show (with themes like "The Three Wise Men") for the young ones. A late meal called le reveillon comes in the evening, and the children leave their shoes for Pere Noel to fill with candy.

The children also put their shoes out on the eve of St. Nicholas (mid-December) to receive treats. The story goes that St. Nicholas became the protector of children after saving three disobedient boys from being salted and stored byan evil butcher (Pere Fouettard, or "the whipping father"). So beware: Pere Fouettard follows St. Nicholas on his rounds, dispensing spankings and coal to naughty children.

Come Easter, don't expect giant rabbits wearing berets. In French lore, church bells fly off on Holy Thursday, carrying with them the unhappiness and despair of those mourning the death of Jesus. After making a pit stop at the Vatican, the bells return Sunday morning. French children search the house and garden for the chocolate Easter bells and eggs brought from the journey.

Lucky for those French kids, they get another chocolate-centric holiday on April 1, where they pin paper fish on the backs of unsuspecting adults. The children then shout "Poisson d'Avril!" (April Fish!) and are treated to a small chocolate fish by their target.

While chocolate fish are no doubt delicious, you ain't seen nothing yet. Follow your rumbling stomach to the next section to sample the tasty food culture of France.

Traditional French Food

Creamy cheeses, steaming bread, sugar-dusted pastries that melt in your mouth. The food tradition in France has helped define the slow, simmering sensuality of the culture.

Denis Bisson, the French cultural attaché in the San Francisco French consulate office, says that globalization has changed that culture. "I'd say that perhaps the 'obsession with food' is less and less true, although it remains an important part of the culture. But as tastes tend to be more globalized, and as people have less and less time to cook, gone is the two-hour-long daily three-course lunch with lots of wine," he says.

This isn't the first time French cuisine has seen cultural changes. French cuisine started to take shape after the Middle Ages when they discovered the joys of rare, delicately spiced food. This tradition is still seen, as lightly cooked meats in France still give foreigners pause. They will probably be happy to see, however, that the French no longer serve stork, seals, swans and whale, as they did during the 17th century.

In the 18th century, food presentation became a part of upscale French cuisine. The restaurant culture began to develop in France in the next century, and decoration took a backseat to quality of taste. French restaurants still hold a reputation for careful food presentation.

Traditional dishes in France often differ by region. Northern France favors butter while southern France uses Mediterranean oils. Normandy and Brittany, for instance, use the seafood in nearby shores for a seafood stew called bouillabaisse. French wine from the Bordeaux and Champagne regions are known as some of the best vino in the world.

Because French products are so in demand, the French government formed the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The AOC ensures that certain French wines, cheeses, meats and other regional specialties meet strict specifications for production, quality and labeling.

France's history of cuisine is so storied that United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted "the gastronomic meal of the French" status as a "World Heritage Treasure" in 2010. To uphold the honor, France plans to market the French culinary tradition through cooking shows and advertising.

French food tradition has always been seen as "elite." But French food is nothing compared to French fashion, which holds a special superior place in culture. So pull up to the runway for a look.

Traditional French Clothing

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel definitely left her mark on French fashion.
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel definitely left her mark on French fashion.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While a lot of foreigners imagine striped shirts, a knotted scarf and berets as a "traditional" French outfit, the reality is as varied as any other Western culture. Although regional clothing (like the headdress and embroidered dress of the Alsace region) is no more, fashion remains a tradition.

High fashion began in 1715, when ladies from the court gathered a group of tailors and designers, and plotted out new, custom-made fashions on the spot. Voilá: couture (garments made for a specific person) was created [source: DeJean].

Charles Worth, an American émigré, created haute couture (fashion houses) in the late 1800s by staging fashion shows and sewing labels into his pieces. By the 20th century, the bustle and corset disappeared, and French women took to loose-fitting undergarments and the sleek look of art deco infiltrated French fashion.

This paved the way for Coco Chanel's more austere and functional look, fitting for the period after World War I. Knockoffs became standard, and mass production began to take hold.

French fashion took a signature turn into an emergent art genre called "surrealism" (a movement marked by absurdity and juxtaposition) between the wars. Designers made hats that looked like shoes and evening dresses printed with not entirely elegant giant lobsters.

These bizarre (and not terribly utilitarian) looks continue in haute couture today. Lady Gaga, for one, should be grateful to the French for their foresight whenever she pulls her meat dress out of the hamper.

The beret illustrates how French fashion follows culture quite closely. Originally used by the sheep herding Basques of France and Spain, it was co-opted by intellectuals who embraced the common-man aesthetic of the hat. Soon, we all had to have one.

"Urbanization ruined everything," says Bernard Fargues, who makes berets in France, in an interview with The Telegraph. "At first when rural people moved into the cities, they carried on wearing the beret. And the intellectuals began to wear it as a symbol of solidarity ... But then people stopped wearing berets in the towns because it came to be seen as a sign of a provincial, a peasant. Beret wearing declined in proportion to the rural exodus" [source: Broughton].

As goes French culture, so goes French fashion. So let us put our beret away to don our thinking cap as we explore French literature and philosophy.

French Literature and Philosophy

As Voltaire can attest, the French are some pretty philosophical folks!
As Voltaire can attest, the French are some pretty philosophical folks!

Imagine an archive of that details every artistic and scientific advance, allowing us to keep track of how stuff works. Sound familiar?

Denis Diderot was a French philosopher and writer in the mid-18th century who used rationalism (a belief in reason) as a basis to compile an encyclopedia on arts and science. "Le Encyclopedie" was created to record all the essential tenets of scientific and artistic thought (Luckily for How Stuff Works, he never got it done completely, thus allowing for some young upstarts to take his place, 300 years later, and let the world know how exactly Muppets work).

Before rationalism was the 17th century Enlightenment, where thinkers like Michel de Montaigne questioned the superiority of classical thought and Rene Descartes provided a groundwork for philosophical explanation of science.

When rationalism took hold by the eighteenth century, Voltaire denounced the influence of religion on rational thought, while Rousseau championed civil rights and individual freedom. Rationalists became a symbol of the quintessential Frenchman, wielding art and philosophy to fight against the tyranny of both religion and corrupt government.

In the 20th century, writer Jean-Paul Sartre began the existential movement. Existentialism held that scientific laws and simple reason were not enough to define existence and that people must define themselves through others as well. Broad enough? Sartre evidently thought so too, as he named one of his treatises "Being and Nothingness," which pretty much covers it all.

As the 20th century progressed and technological advancements continued, French philosophy began to see science as a creative force, and radical political thought was introduced in philosophy.

When surrealism emerged, it once again altered culture by describing a new way of seeing the world, through absurdity and juxtaposition. Combined with the concept of Freudian thought, writers like Andre Breton valued the "unconscious" creation of art by merging realism with bizarre psychological tangents in their work.

French philosophy and literature can hardly be separated. Alain Badiou, a French philosopher and writer, sees the 20th century French tradition of literature and philosophy as completely intertwined. He writes that "the goals of French philosophy have been to construct a new space . . . the home of a sort of writing in which it was no longer possible to disentangle philosophy from literature" [source: Badiou).

Now let's take a break from thinking so hard and take a look at the traditional art and film of France.

Traditional French Art and Cinema

If you're looking for a French claim to cultural precedence, art would be a fine place to start. France is home to the earliest recorded cave drawings, dating from around 15,000 B.C. [source: Lascaux]. Depicting mostly animals (and a few stick-figure humans), the caves at Lascuax demonstrate that the French art tradition has some serious depth.

Before the Renaissance, gothic religious art dominated the French art tradition before the Renaissance (as it did in the rest of Europe at the time). The Chartres Cathedral is an existing example of the gothic tradition in France, marked by its height and ornamental buttresses.

The Baroque style emerged when art started to focus on less religious, more common- place scenes. This trend continued into the Rococo period, where fanciful images of the wealthy bourgeoisie began edging out space formerly held by stiff portraits of royalty.

It was in the 18th century that French art started to acquire a modern edge. French artists like Gustave Courbet used realism to depict the world around them. As the 19th century moved forward, impressionism took hold in French art.

The term impressionism was originally derogatory, as a critic implied that Claude Monet's work looked like an "impression" or sketch instead of a finished piece of art [source: Moffat]. But the art world caught up with Monet and his contemporaries, and impressionism went on to spur both abstract and cubist art.

While Picasso and friends created a Parisian following, Paris brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere, showed the first public film screening. Soon, the French were putting out sprawling 330 minute Napoleon biopics (1927) and surrealist pieces like "The Seashell and the Clergyman" in 1928. (Spoiler: Not a romantic comedy.)

During the '50s and '60s, French cinema was drastically changed by the "New Wave" of directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. They relied on the auteur theory of cinema, where directors became the author and creative force behind their films. Directors used cinema verite styles (jump cuts, handheld cameras) to make stylistic choices.

While Hollywood dominates box office hits today, France has become the center of "artistic" film. The Cannes Film Festival honors this legacy every year and has become the most prestigious (and artistically esteemed) venue to debut films in the French art house tradition.

But enough of this artsy fartsy stuff. Let's sweat it out with some French sports next.

Traditional French Sports

The French love a lively game of boules, or petanque.
The French love a lively game of boules, or petanque.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Lest you get the wrong idea about the French, they're not all sitting in cafes all day, nibbling croissants and discussing the theory of life. There is also a varied and active sporting culture.

First off, French people do enjoy a stroll. Grand randonnees (or long distance trails around France) provide both urban and rural paths for walking and sightseeing. And leisurely jaunts around parks in cities also give the French the dose of sunshine they worship. (Just don't get off the path; it's not unusual to see signs warning visitors to keep off the grass in parks. The aesthetics of the outdoors is highly valued in France.)

If you do find a scrap of unwatched lawn, you might be interested in a game of boules, also known as Petanque. Two teams attempt to roll or throw balls closest to a jack in the middle, knocking their opponent's ball out of the way. You may know it in by its Italian name, bocce.

While organized rugby and soccer (le foot, en francais) are extremely popular national pastimes, the sporting event most decidedly "French" is the Tour de France. More than a hundred years old, the cycling race covers 2,235 miles (3,600 kilometers) over the course of three weeks. The grueling ride combines both flat, time-trial intervals with steep mountain climbs. But even though the race has become a proud French tradition, its beginnings were less exalted: A journalist started the race simply to draw attention and circulation to his newspaper, which sponsored the event.

One very recent tradition invented by the French deserves a mention. Parkour is a form of running (sometimes called "free running"), in which obstacles in the landscape are not avoided but quickly navigated with jumping, leaping, quick crawling and climbing. This non-competitive sport was invented by a French teenager in the late 80s [source: Lawrence]. Clearly, the sport requires serious skill, and you won't find the streets of Paris filled with Parkour practitioners on lunch break.

But Parkour does speak to the creativity and individualism embraced in French culture. Let's take a look at the next page to see how these traits have been regulated to keep French tradition "pure."

French Culture:Adherence to Tradition

A pervasive stereotype of the French is their disdain at foreigners butchering their beautiful language. Like any stereotype, this is certainly not unequivocally true, but it does point to the pride the French have about the purity of their culture.

L'Academie Francaise is an organization devoted to "watching over" the French language and carefully monitoring changes in the French dictionary. Established in 1635, the organization has put out nine editions of the comprehensive French language dictionary in the past four centuries [source: L'Academie Francaise].

What's the point, you may ask? (And please be sure to correctly conjugate if you're asking in French, lest the L'Academie Francaise give you a frown.) L'Academie Francaise does not exist solely to mark your papers with red pen; it was established to show unity in French society at the time. Not only were speakers confronted with different dialects, but a universal vocabulary across the arts and sciences was also in demand.

And the Academie has remained strict. In 2006, a French subsidiary of an American company was fined roughly $650,000 for providing English-only software to employees [source: Allen].

As for the French attitude toward the Academie, French cultural attaché Denis Bisson says the strict organization inspires mixed feelings. "They often make jokes about the Académie, but at the same time they respect it, and if it was to disappear, I'm sure the majority would be up in arms to protect it," Bisson says.

For a culture as varied and old as the French one, there's always more to be discovered. Visit the next page to find out lots more about France.

Related Articles


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