The truth about French stereotypes

The truth about French stereotypes

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French people are well known for a lot of French things that represent basic French stereotypes. In this article, the goal is to contextualise in the XXIst century all the French stereotypes, to tell the truth and to stop spreading false stereotypes. We are going to speak about sixteen key points which refer to French things. To facilitate the reading, we can classify them by sections. The first section talks about clothes, the second one about meal traditions and the last one about attitudes.

Let’s start with stereotypes about clothing

When you research images about French people you will definitely find a picture with a man wearing a beret and a striped shirt.

Where are these stereotypes coming from?

There is no official source that can attest that these stereotypes are coming from a specific thing. But we can suppose that this cliché became famous for two reasons. The first reason is that small farmers used to wear it to work. The second, related to the first one, is that these French small farmers went to Great Britain in the 20’s for work. They were called “onion Johnny” because they imported onions. These famous small farmers wore berets and striped shirts and we can suppose that they diffused the myth. Since it is supplied by artists like Jean-Paul Gaultier or Picasso (everybody knows the famous picture of him wearing a beret and a striped shirt made when he was living in France) and companies ( Justin Bridou’s logo in France).

What about now?

Nowadays, farmers don’t wear berets anymore. Nevertheless, some French people wear separately the beret and the striped shirt. In fact, on the Basque coast the tradition for men is to wear a beret. But it depends on the period of the year and events. It is a kind of appartenance symbol of the Basque region, which is very important for them. That is also the idea for the striped shirt in Brittany. They wear it as a pride distinction to represent their region. For all that, because the beret and the striped shirt are related to France and therefore to elegance, you can easily find them in fashion stores all over Europe.

Let’s continue with meal traditions

French people are known all over the world for their cuisine, that is the reason why the French word “chef” is now used in many languages to refer to the cook. That is also why foreigners think that French people only eat gourmet meals. But that is not true! They like to eat gourmet meals, of course, but with globalization they have changed their lifestyles and now they are also eating fast food, etc. And what about wine, cheese and baguette?

Why are baguettes, wine and cheese symbols of France?

The baguette was probably born during the reign of Napoléon 1st. In fact, the traditional bread was round, but to permit the soldiers to bring bread with them, the baguette was created. This way they could bring bread putting it in their back. The other hypothesis is that workers asked the baker to cook bread which could be cut without a knife/by hands. In both cases, it was born in France and surely that is why it is a French symbol. Nowadays, French people still delight in baguettes. Moreover, it has been registered in France, as an “immaterial culture patrimoine” since 2018.

In France, for a feast with family or friends, the menu is composed as followed:

  • pre-dinner drinks and morsels
  • first course
  • main course
  • cheese with salad
  • desert
  • infusion, tea, coffee
  • after-dinner liqueur

The first hypothesis to answer the question “why are wine and cheese French symbols?” is because French people drink wine during all dinner, from the first course to the cheese and salad moment. And rightly, they dedicate a part of their dinner eating cheese with bread, salad and wine. This part of the dinner is typically a French tradition which comes from farmers, again. As we can see with the description of a French feast above, this persistent tradition carries on those French symbols.

French people eat frog legs and escargots

It is a true story! French people were used to eating frog legs and escargots. But actually, eating escargots is very occasional. In fact, it is also an old tradition and young people do not approve of it. Some events are organised to eat escargots and some people can eat it for Christmas, but it is not a daily or weekly or monthly meal at all. Concerning frog legs, nowadays, almost nobody in France is eating frog legs except in starred restaurants.

Last section: French attitudes

Speaking about French attitudes is a very large topic because a lot of things are evoked by foreigners concerning their behaviors. They are heavy smokers, they always say “ohlala” or “putain”, they do not speak English or if they know they do not want to speak because of their accent, they are rude, they are to proud of their country, they are racists, they are fraudulent and they are always late. Let’s see what is true and what is false.

French people are heavy smokers

Tobacco came to Europe during the XVIth century when Christopher Colombus invaded the American continent and made four trips. In fact, in 1520, tobacco arrived in Europe by boat from America. Hence, the first empire consumer of tobacco was Spain. Nevertheless, is a French professor of chemistry called Louis Nicolas Vauquelin who found the nicotine alkaloid. Whereas tobacco consumption in France was important in the 20’s, it became higher during WWII with the importation of American cigarettes. But, it does not really explain why they have this reputation. If you research the higher consumers of cigarettes by countries, France is not in the top 10! We can conclude that this stereotype is false and nowadays other countries are higher consumers of tobacco. Moreover, since January 2020, one cigarette pack costs 10 euros in France. It is a government policy to reduce the number of consumers.

Their favourite words are “ohlala” and “putain”

Of course, they use both of them a lot but they do not represent their favourite words. What do they mean? “Ohlala” shows a reaction. It can be a surprise, deception or the expression of admiration. What you have to remember is not that they use it a lot but fairly that they are expressive. “Putain” is an old word whose first and vulgar meaning is “prostitute”. Nowadays it is used as “ohlala” to show a reaction but it is still a vulgar word whereas “ohlala” is part of common language. So, “putain” expresses surprise, displeasure and indignation. We can draw two conclusions, the first one is that this stereotype is false and the second one is that French people are very expressive.

They do not speak English or they do not like their accent

Before the XXIst century, it is probably true that French people did not know English. But since then, this language is taught at school. Moreover, everybody knows that it is THE language to learn if you want to travel or to find an international job. For all that, we can say that nowadays in France, people who know English are part of the high or middle social classes. Concerning the accent, they all know that foreigners laugh at it and it is perhaps the reason why they are embarrassed when they speak English. But if a French person cannot answer you in English is not because he or she does not like his or her accent, it is just because this person does not know English! To conclude, we cannot say that these two stereotypes are true or false, because it depends on the person you are talking to.

French people are rude, proud of their country, racists, fraudulent and they are always late.

French people and especially young French people are rude. They actually use “putain” in a lot of sentences and other kinds of argot which give them this reputation. This stereotype, unfortunately for them, is true.
They are proud of their country because of their history and diversity of the territory. France has a glorious past and a wonderful territory with ocean and sea coasts, mountains, a lot of architectural patrimonies and so on. Why would they not be proud of it?
French people are not racist. Compared to other countries, they integrate a lot of people. Once again, people who are racist mostly come from rural areas. In a general way, this stereotype is false.
French people are fraudulent. Well, they cross the road when the light is red, they try not to pay their transport tickets, they often go on strike, etc. so perhaps this stereotype is true.
Finally, they are always late. This stereotype is funny because they have the same for Spanish people, which means that perhaps this one is based on imagination. Nevertheless, in a French region called Périgord, if someone is late he can be excused saying that it is because of the “quarter of an hour from Périgord”. That is to say, when a French person comes from Périgord, he or she uses this expression when he or she is late. We can suppose that it exists because they are used to being late. In conclusion, this stereotype depends on the French region.

French people in a nutshell

To conclude and sum up the truth about French stereotypes and French things, you can have a look at this table which summarizes the information given above:

True False It depends
They wear berets X
They wear striped shirts X
They eat stinky cheese
They drink a lot of wine
They eat gourmet meals X
They eat baguettes 
They eat frog legs and escargots
They smoke a lot X
Their favourite words are “ohlala” and “putain” 
They do not speak English
They are embarrassed with their English accent X
They are rude X
They are proud of France X
They are racist X
They are fraudulent X
They are always late X

And now, let’s see if you know how to pronounce these words related to French symbols

Because you know now what you can say about French people, and which French things you would talk about, you should be able to pronounce it like a native! In the following paragraphs, you will find how to pronounce French words very well.

Beret

This French word is used in English to refer to the same thing in French because it is a lexical borrowing. The fact remains that it is pronounced in English as an English word but you can try to pronounce it correctly as a French native. You should pronounce it like this [beʁe] (phonetic spelling). It means that the -t is mute and both -e are pronounced “é”.

French cheese

Here, we are still interested in lexical borrowings, that is to say, words whose use do not change from one language to another. Cheeses loved by French people and representing a lexical borrowing are for example, gruyère, camembert and brie. The first one is pronounced [grɥiɛʁ] which is like “gruier”. The second one is pronounced [kamɑ̃nbɛʁ] which is like “camenber”, one more time the -t is not pronounced. The last one is pronounced [bʁi] which is like “bri”, in this case, the -e which is not pronounced.

French wine

French wines are famous all around the world. The most popular are (amongst others) red wine from Bordeaux, black Pinot, Champagne, wines from Sauvignon and also wines from Chardonnay. Let’s have a look at the table to know how to pronounce it below:

Wine Phonetic spelling Common spelling
Bordeaux [bɔʁdo] “bordo”
Pinot [pinɔ] “pino”
Champagne [ʃɑ̃mpaɲ] “champagn”
Sauvignon [soviɲɔ̃] “sovignon”
Chardonnay [ʃaʁdone] “chardoné”

How to pronounce baguette and escargot

If you are going to travel to France you would probably taste a real French baguette and some French escargots. If you want them to understand what you are asking for, you should pronounce it correctly. The phonetic spelling of baguette is [baget] that is to say “baguet”, it is very easy ! Escargot is a bit more difficult, the phonetic spelling is [ɛskaʁgo] that is to say “escargo”. As you can notice, -e and -t letters are usually not pronounced if they are at the end of the word.

Ohlala and putain

If you want to sound like a French native, you should often use “Ohlala”. On the contrary, it is advised to avoid using “putain” because this word is very vulgar. Nevertheless, you can learn how it is pronounced to be able to recognize it when you hear it. “Ohlala” is very easy but if you want to know the phonetic spelling here it is : [olala]. According to “putain”, the phonetic spelling is [pɥtɛ̃] which is like “putin”.

If you want to learn more French words

After these spelling lessons, you want to know more about the French language? You also want to learn more French words? Thanks to VocApp you will be able to start learning French or improve your French! In this application and website you can create an account which allows you to have access to all courses that you want and need to learn French. To be precise, you will have access to French courses, you will be able to create your own flashcards to target your needs and you will also find French lessons. For example, thanks to French Courses you will find a lot of courses with different topics with translation from English to French. If you want to start learning in French, you can also try some flashcards from the lesson French in 1 day. And if you want to improve your French for travelling, because this article makes you want to go to France, French for travelling will help you a lot. See you on the website or on the application to learn more about French language and French culture!

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