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Customs of France

Marriage and Family

Image A marriage is legally recognized only if there has been a civil ceremony, but many people have a religious ceremony as well. An increasing number of people live together before getting married or as an alternative to marriage.

 Family ties and loyalty remain strong, but there has been a shift from the extended family to the smaller nuclear family. The average family has fewer than two children, and many children now leave home when they have finished school. There has also been an increase in the number of people choosing not to have children. Europe


The French consider cooking an art, and French cuisine is popular around the world. The first French cookbooks date back to the Middle Ages, and French standards were the early gauge of fine cooking. French wines are also internationally renowned. Regional traditions are strong. There are several types of cooking, ranging from hearty, inexpensive fare to sophisticated dishes with costly ingredients and rich, complex sauces. Nouvelle cuisine, which emerged in the 1970s, was a reaction to the heaviness of this style of cooking. While still using expensive ingredients, it is much lighter, the portions smaller, and the presentation more artistic.

The French generally eat a light breakfast (petit déjeuner), which may consist of croissants or bread and coffee or hot chocolate. Lunch (déjeuner) was once the main meal of the day, but now many people—particularly in urban areas—have a lighter lunch and eat their main meal in the evening. In Paris, lunch is usually eaten at around 1 pm and dinner (dîner) at 9 pm or later. People tend to eat earlier in other areas.

The ritual of leisurely meals is important in France. Formal lunches and dinners may last more than two hours. They generally include an appetizer; a main course of fish or meat, accompanied by vegetables; salad; cheese; and fruit. These elaborate meals often end with dessert and coffee.

ImageFast food has been resisted by the French, although this resistance has not been entirely successful, and many hamburger restaurants operate across the country. In fast food’s most traditional form there are filled croissants and sandwiches that can be purchased in shops and cafés. Cafés also offer crôque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese) and a plate of salad-type vegetables or a cold-meat assortment (charcuterie) for a light meal. Pâtisseries sell pastries and crêperies sell crêpes.

The French go to restaurants more often than their northern European neighbors. Almost every restaurant has at least one fixed-price menu (a selection of two or three dishes for each course at a set price), as well as a menu offering individual selections. In most of France it is usual to choose from the fixed-price menu unless it is a special occasion.


Shaking hands upon greeting and parting is customary in France. The handshake should be firm, but an aggressive handshake is considered impolite. Among friends and relatives, women are kissed (by men and women) up to three times on both cheeks—in truth they often touch cheeks and “kiss the air.” The standard phrases for greeting include Bonjour (“Good day”) and Comment allez-vous? or the more informal Ça va? (both meaning “How are you?”). Greetings are usually combined with the person’s name or a title, and usually precede any conversation or request. Good-bye is Au revoir (“Until we meet again”) or the less formal À bientôt (“See you soon”). First names are used between friends and close colleagues, but otherwise titles are important and customary. Besides professional titles, Monsieur (“Mr.”), Madame (“Mrs.”), and Mademoiselle (“Miss”) are commonly used.

The local café used to be the main center for social life, but more people now spend their evenings at home. Socializing tends to be reserved for the weekends. The French are formal in their visiting customs, and people do not often visit unannounced. It is usual to arrive up to 15 or 20 minutes late for a social occasion, but arriving any later may appear rude. The host is often given a bottle of wine or another small gift. French hosts feel they are responsible for, and enjoy, guiding or directing social occasions by organizing the seating, leading the conversation, and so forth. Visitors are expected to show a certain deference to the host and, except when they are very good friends, not make themselves too much at home. It is important to compliment the host on the cooking and the wine, because good cooking is a matter of much pride in French homes.


Soccer and rugby are popular spectator sports, and the annual Tour de France cycling race is followed avidly. Almost 2 million people belong to amateur soccer clubs, and participation is high in cycling, fishing, tennis, walking, skiing, and sailing. Hunting is also popular, as are horseback riding and golf. Pétanque (or boule), a form of bowling, is still much played, particularly in the south, where the game originated. Horse racing provides a popular outlet for betting. Bullfighting is confined to the south, principally in Languedoc-Roussillon and the Basque country.

Summer music festivals occur throughout France, and there has been increased support for concerts, theater, and the opera. Theater thrives partly because of generous state subsidies. Cinema remains popular, and museums have also enjoyed increased support.

Holidays and Celebrations

The French ring in the New Year on 1 January. The Feast of the Epiphany, also called Le Jour des Rois (“The Day of the Kings”) is celebrated on 6 January. On this day, parties feature the traditional galette des rois (“cake of the kings”), in which a token has been baked; whoever finds the token in his or her slice of cake is crowned “king” or “queen” for the evening.

Easter Sunday is followed by the public holiday of Easter Monday. May Day (1 May) is marked by the wearing of lilies of the valley, small nosegays of which are sold on many street corners leading up to May Day. It is believed that those who make wishes while wearing the flowers on May Day will have their wishes granted. France’s Labor Day is also on 1 May. VE (Victory in Europe) Day on 8 May commemorates the unconditional surrender of the Germans to Allied forces in 1945.

Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, marks the day Jesus Christ is said to have ascended to Heaven. Whitsunday—or the Pentecost—50 days after Easter, is the day the Holy Spirit is said to have appeared to his disciples in the form of tongues of fire, and symbolizes the beginnings of the Christian church. The following day, Whitmonday, is a public holiday.

Perhaps the most colorful of French holidays is Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale) on 14 July. The Bastille, a Parisian prison that came to symbolize the monarchy, was stormed by angry citizens on 14 July 1789. This event set off the French Revolution. Now 14 July crackles with fireworks day and night; parades are held, and there is dancing in the streets.

Assumption Day, 15 August, commemorates the day Mary’s body is said to have been “assumed” into Heaven. All of the Christian saints are honored on the first day of November, La Toussaint, or All Saints’ Day. Armistice Day (11 November) marks the day in 1918 when the armistice was signed between the Allied and Central powers fighting World War I. Christmas is celebrated on 25 December.

Most employees have five weeks’ holiday a year, and some take as much as four weeks in summer. During August, the traditional holiday month, many factories and offices close, as do some restaurants in Paris. Traditionally, the French have taken their holidays in their own country, with many choosing to camp. An increasing number now venture farther afield. Several million people ski in the winter, most of them at resorts in the French Alps.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas