10 Little Known Facts About France

Posted on 19. Jul, 2011 by in Destinations, Europe Travel, expat France, France

Now that I have been living in France for a while, I have started to notice some interesting facts about France that make the French so… French. Want to know what I found out? Read on.

interesting facts about france, tipping in france

Tipping in France – photo by Charly Brown

1.  No tipping

Service is included in all restaurant bills. While it does feel weird to leave nothing on the table at first, it’s amazing how quick you get used to knowing exactly how much your meal has costed. You can exceptionally leave a euro or two on the table if you received outstanding customer service, but that’s highly unlikely…

2. Le client est roi… right?

Customers are kings. That’s a saying we have in Quebec. And somehow, I have the very strong impression it is yet another thing that wasn’t brought to us from France!  Their customer service, to be completely blunt, is awful in most places. Considering how complicated it is to fire an employee in France, why would they bother being kind and smily? It doesn’t come as a surprise either to know that the opening hours of a store may vary according to the employees moods. Even if the official hours are, say, 9 to 7, well don’t expect to come in for a baguette at 6:50. Oh no. The store is actually closed so the employees can be gone by 7. Funny way to run a business, isn’t it?

3.  Drugstores are actually… drugstores

Don’t expect to buy toilet paper, mascara or candy over here – they only sell drugs, high-end creams and special toothpaste (although when you think of it, it is kind of weird to sell candies at the drugstore – how are they better than cigarettes for our health?). You can easily recognize them with the flashing green neon cross over the door and you don’t usually have to walk very far to find one.  French people are serious about their drugstores!

drugstore france, french drugstore, pharmacie, interesting facts about france

French drugstore – Photo by Cat Guzman

4.   Methods of payment slightly differ

Most high street stores and groceries still accept cheques as a method of payment, as long as you have ID to prove your identity. Cheques, in America, are so archaic – needless to say how surprised I was when I saw a woman get out her checkbook to pay for her groceries!  Another thing that mesmerizes me is that they only have one card: la carte bleue. It’s a debit card with a Visa sign on it. Why so? How does it sort credit and debit? I have absolutely no idea. (Thank God Wiki is there to inform me on what my banker missed out on! Now that I’ve figured out how it works I must say, it is quite brillant.)

5.   Ice is EVIL!

Another little known fact is that no proper restaurant in France will serve ice in your water. Most of the time, the water will be either room-temperature or slightly chilly, but never cold.  That’s when I miss my self-serve McDonald’s soda bar, where I can decide just how much ice I want in my drink. Which is a lot.

6.   La bise

That’s my least favorite thing about France. La bise. What a chore! It isn’t so bad when there are only 3-4 people, but when you arrive at a party of 20+ people, it’s just an awfully long exercise that’s keeping you away from your drink. Everybody has to stand up to greet you with a kiss on both cheeks, with very specific rules. Without exception. And I actually have to make huge efforts to do that – my North American standards do not force awkward contact between strangers, and I have to say that I really prefer it that way.  And once you finally do get your hands on a drink, doesn’t mean you can enjoy it right away…

7.   Santé!

Cheering in France is no simple happening. Why go simple when you can go complicated? There are specific rules to follow to cheer as per the French rules: you have to look every single person you cheers with in the eye, say “Santé!” or “Tchin Tchin!”, without crossing your glass with someone else’s – otherwise you will be entitled to seven years of bad sex. You’ve been warned!

cheers, cheering glasses, party, cheering in france, interesting facts about france

Not gonna happen in France!

8. Shopping carts

No one is getting away with a shopping cart theft without a price – to actually use a cart, you have to insert a €1 coin on a special coin-operated mechanism on the handle. No kidding! What happens most of the time is that you forget to take your coin back and pay an extra euro for your grocery.

9. Sunday is the Day of Rest

What most tourists don’t know about France is that if you happen to be traveling on a Sunday, you should know this: most stores will be closed for the day. Some groceries will open for a few hours in the morning, but that’s about it – and some family-owned businesses (such as bakeries) will be closed on Mondays as well. Coming from a large city like Montreal where you can find pretty much anything you want at any hour, that required a bit of getting used to.

10. Les soldes

Unfortunately for the fashionista in me, France doesn’t have regular sales. In fact, there are only two authorized periods per year: July and January. It has some good and some bad: yes, the prices are higher year-round but when the sales do come around, you can expect 50%+ discounts, whether in luxury stores or high street chains. I recently bought two striped t-shirts (essential French items, right?) that were initially tagged at €30 each, and I ended up paying only €20 for both. We rarely get these kinds of sale in Canada, so needless to say I was extremely happy with this particular French tradition!

Have you experienced weird traditions? Did you also notice some interesting facts about France? Awkward situations? Things you would love to import to your home country?

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54 Responses to “10 Little Known Facts About France”

  1. Lauren Rice

    19. Jul, 2011

    I can relate to so many of these things after dating a Frenchman! He complained SO much about going out to eat in the US because you never knew how much you were actually going to pay.

    Same problem with the pharmacy…he couldn’t understand why you couldn’t just walk up to the pharmacist, tell them your issue, and get inexpensive medicine.

    Don’t even get me started on the bise and sante! I became incredibly awkward when I had to kiss anyone–even him! I also learned my lesson about toasting. To this day, it still bothers me when people don’t look me in the eye!

    Loved this post–it brought back so many memories :)

    Ps. Let’s not forget my cart incident in England…I almost “stole” from a woman when I tried taking her cart before she got her pound back! ooops

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      19. Jul, 2011

      I’m glad you liked it! Apparently you related to pretty much all the facts listed. France is a quirky country!

      Reply to this comment
  2. melodie

    19. Jul, 2011

    On avait une carte bleue en Angleterre! On n’a jamais réussi à avoir une Visa. On n’était pas assez solvables à leur goût ??!! (Je fais encore des cauchemars de mes visites à la banque de Portsmouth à notre arrivée). En gros, c’est une simple carte de débit MAIS qui te permet de faire des achats sur Internet, comme une carte de crédit. Parfois, certaines institutions te permettent un “overdraft”, donc si notre compte est à zéro, on peut quand même retirer de l’argent ou payer des trucs sans frais si on rembourse avant la fin de l’autre mois (comme une facture de carte de crédit, dans le fond).

    Reply to this comment
  3. Randy

    19. Jul, 2011

    I love little tidbits like these. A few of these I knew, but most I didn’t. We tend to hit up grocery stores a lot on our travels, so it’s good to know about the cart charge.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Christine

    19. Jul, 2011

    Sounds about right! :)

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      20. Jul, 2011

      Glad you could relate too – luckily I’m not the only one to find that the French have weird habits :)

      Reply to this comment
  5. Katherina

    19. Jul, 2011

    loved this list, and I can relate to so many of these! Whenever visiting France it was strange not to be able to find ice anywhere. I think that Spain is the only European country that loves ice like crazy…. Switzerland and Germany just never had any neither!

    Oh, and even though I complain about les bises, and never knowing how many I should give (if any at all), I find it funny! Not even the french themselves know how many kisses to give :)

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      20. Jul, 2011

      I know serving ice might be an attempt to actually serve less liquid, but then again, who likes a glass of lukewarm water!?

      Reply to this comment
      • Françoise

        12. Jan, 2013

        Well I hate water with ice : I always ask for a glass without ice.

        Reply to this comment
  6. Bryan Snider

    19. Jul, 2011

    Great post as usual! I remember the first time I was in France I got a very in your face awakening about the cultural differences between the United States and France.

    I know for me one of the hardest things to get use to was the whole tipping thing. I felt so rude about not leaving something on the table. Here in the United States I’m pretty generous with tipping and it was very difficult to not leave a Euro or two on the table. However, I reminded myself by looking at the receipt and reading “Service Compris” a phrase I learned in French class.

    One other thing I learned when I was in France the first time was to be very aware of table manners and to always use a fork and knife when in doubt.

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      20. Jul, 2011

      Thank you so much! French are indeed very serious about the whole table/food issue!

      Reply to this comment
  7. darel menia

    20. Jul, 2011

    Fun to read that. Morocco is much the same way, probably due to the French influence. Sometimes at my little guesthouse in Fes, it really surprises visitors!

    Reply to this comment
  8. Wolf

    20. Jul, 2011

    Number 1, 7 and 9 apply one-to-one in Germany (although I think it IS quite common to give tips, it’s the service that’s included, not the tip…)

    Putting ice in drinks is considered a cheap attempt at serving you less, at least when it comes to alcoholic beverages. People actually get mad about that (I used to work in a bar…)

    What I still don’t get is the paying with cheques thing…I think that’s really a weird French specialty.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Emily @travelated

    20. Jul, 2011

    Oh my goodness, la bise was the most difficult cultural thing for me to adjust to when I was there! It was so confusing and I always lost track of who I had kissed and how many times!!

    Reply to this comment
  10. Andrea

    20. Jul, 2011

    Well there’s some money gone – had no idea that tipping wasn’t necessary!

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      20. Jul, 2011

      Ha well you can give me 50% of the money you will save from now on, hehe :)

      Reply to this comment
  11. @pro_vence

    21. Jul, 2011

    I really wonder: when was your last time in France ????

    First thing: ok, service is included, but if you would not leave a little something (or more), it would be considered extremly rude. As you do not need to pay taxes on your tips, but you can’t avoid taxes to be paid on your salary, imagine how much the french do welcome a tip !

    Ok, the french service can be improved – but it has improved in most places. Especially areas where they do not have many tourists (go find the hidden gems).

    The shopping carts work exactly the same way in most of the European countries. So if you forget your coin, I bet the Europeans do not.

    Concerning the bise, even the french don’ t know. Every region, even every town, has a different number of it…

    Ice ? Oh, you’re kidding, right ? The waiters always bring my drink with plenty of ice (that I’ll throw away, if possible ;-)).

    Why do you travel ? To have eaxactly the same experiences than at home ?
    Please come to France for an update of this post.

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      21. Jul, 2011

      Ha well why don’t you write an article of your own, then? Apparently you hold the sacred knowledge to everything France so everything you say is obviously applicable to every single region of France. Can’t wait to read it. :)

      Reply to this comment
  12. melodie

    21. Jul, 2011

    @pro_vence: I understand how you can feel “attacked” but just take it with a grain of salt. It’s normal for foreigners in a new country to notice the differences. My French friends in Quebec, when they arrived here, all said stuff like: the wine is awful, the sandwiches are bad, the taxes and tips is uncomprehensible, not enough work holidays, etc.” I think Marie would not be in France if she didn’t like the country. Plus, if you read some of her other posts, you’ll see she gives praise to a lot of French ways too.

    Ayons un peu le sens de l’humour :-)

    Reply to this comment
  13. Alexandre

    21. Jul, 2011

    @pro_vence: By reading your comment, I have to guess that you are french or very fond of France.

    If indeed you are french, you should keep in mind that, no matter how much you love your country, foreigners will have a cultural shock, especially if they get to stay in the country for a long period. France is an awesome country with really nice people, but there are differences tourists and foreigners will notice and/or be annoyed by and there are differences they’ll be amazed by :)

    The same holds for *every* *single* country on Earth!

    One of my french friend in Germany was, at first, quite amused at how germans across the street were looking at him when he “dared” to walk across the street on a red light (when there’s no car, obviously). But with time, he felt/realized the germans were looking at him despitefully. That’s something he was very annoyed about. Was he right or wrong about his feeling? It doesn’t matter much. It’s just the way he felt.

    There’s a big difference between visiting a place and living there. From what I can see in the other comments, Marie pretty much nailed how some people can feel when living in France. I sure do feel, quite often, the way she said. With the notable exception that I love not having any ice in my drink, I used to hate that in Quebec :P

    I recommend that you read about the Jerusalem syndrome and about the four stages of living abroad. It is something that, as an expat, I have been very exposed to. My comment is already long enough so I won’t bother to re-state what you can find and read on your own, I am sure. But it is quite amazing and a bit unbelievable what being out of country can put you through ;)

    And it works both ways too. When you move to a new country, you are annoyed by things the locals don’t notice, but you are also very often amazed by things locals just don’t see anymore. Remember: there’s two sides to every story :)

    Reply to this comment
  14. Annie

    22. Jul, 2011

    Word for word Florence. Haha, sometimes this stuff was super hard to get used to (like when Sunday was the only day I had to go to the store) and sometimes it was so nice to have some changes from home and know that the culture appreciated family time and each other’s company.

    Love this post, made me reminisce a little about Italy!

    Reply to this comment
  15. @pro_vence

    22. Jul, 2011

    Well, right, a little sense of humour… I must not have the same. And just to let you know: I am not french in fact, so I do know that things might be different, and I also have experiences where I think: wow the french are really special. But well, it’s their country, right ?

    I found a great answer to the question “why are the french so rude” the other day, have a look, please: http://bit.ly/mML06b

    Reply to this comment
  16. Alexandre

    22. Jul, 2011

    ** Note : in this comment I use “americans” and “europeans” as if every americans are the same and as if every europeans are the same. It’s just a over-generalization to keep the comment short and sweet ;)

    @pro_vence: I think the article you linked holds a bit of truth!

    I try to remind myself now and then about how some europeans coming to NA think that we are rude for: not shacking hands every morning, not saying bye every time you leave the workplace, not saying good morning to people you’re not working with, not inviting people to dinner in our home more often, not going out to lunch together, etc.

    So if we think they’re rude and they think we are rude…. maybe we should just say that it’s because of cultural differences, you know? ;)

    Two americans between themselves won’t find each other rude. The same holds for two europeans talking and working together, they won’t find each other rude.

    The “oh my god this guy is SO rude” thing appears when you mix the two together ;) So I guess each think the other is rude when, really, he’s just being himself. And we shouldn’t blame people for being themselves!!

    Reply to this comment
  17. Abby

    23. Jul, 2011

    I love your sense of humor about the French!

    Reply to this comment
  18. Bob Crunch

    25. Jul, 2011

    These things may seem quirky to Americans like me but I’m pretty sure there are plenty of things Americans do that French probably find just as odd. Great post!

    Reply to this comment
  19. Brenna [fabuleuxdestin]

    26. Jul, 2011

    Thanks for the bise shoutout :) love your list, hating tipping back in the US…

    Reply to this comment
  20. Nomadic Samuel

    29. Jul, 2011

    These are some neat little tidbits about France. The ice is evil one is quite hilarious.

    Reply to this comment
  21. Flights Search

    04. Aug, 2011

    Thanks for the tips mate this is really helpful , Cause i’m planning to go France after i talk to the online travel agents.

    Reply to this comment
  22. mamanpc

    07. Aug, 2011

    This is indeed quite accurate – im American, live in France since the 70s and m married to a Frenchman for 25 years.
    About the “bise” thing: in the Loire Valley where i live, its common for locals to assertively extend their hand for a handshake when they DON’T want to do the kissing ritual…so you can try that next time!

    And yes, they prefer drinks that r not ice-cold, ive become that way too. One of the 1st things they learn to say in the usa is “no ice”… And they always wonder why the waiters run after them in the usa when they leave without including a tip! :D

    Reply to this comment
  23. John

    07. Aug, 2011

    A good list of some of the reasons, I love visiting France. The 20 miles of Channel give me a far more exotic travel experience when travelling there from the UK, than the 3000 miles of Atlantic.
    I don’t like paying for a 500 ml of ice if a I paid for a beverage. I like the customer service ethos. The customer might be king in other places, but my life is ordered enough for me to get my shopping done without having to resort to 24/7 shop opening. 24/7 shopping does not make a country more efficient, it usually comes about by one store trying to gain an advantage over it’s competitors, then all have to follow suit. I also like the fact that no big lorries ply the highways on Sundays.

    Reply to this comment
  24. Kyle

    09. Aug, 2011

    No tipping got me every time. I always left coins on the table. I felt like I HAD to. It’s so ingrained in me that I couldn’t undo the habit!

    Reply to this comment
  25. Andrea

    10. Nov, 2011

    I knew some of these and others remind me of similar traditions in other cities but others surprised me – pretty sure we tipped all the time when living in Paris -oops! Great list =)

    Reply to this comment
  26. catherine

    10. Nov, 2011

    sounds like france is extremely similar to Chile!

    Reply to this comment
  27. Shereen

    13. Nov, 2011

    I wish I knew most of these before I went to France. Being American, I am used to good service (usually) and ice cold drinks. I felt like maybe they were just messing with me in France, but it turns out that they are just that way. I find they DO go out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable, too.

    Reply to this comment
  28. Karen

    29. Dec, 2011

    1: thé bar and restaurant staff were probably miserable because you are a twit!…. You DO tip in bars & restaurants… Thé ‘service’ is included (that means that it is à declared wage)… But TIP is pourboire and every normal French Person leaves one!
    2.: thé reason thé bakeries are closed on a Monday is actually because they work thé other 6 days of thé week including thé Sundays.
    …i actually can’t be bothered to explain to you thé difference between pharmacie, droguerie etc etc. When you can’t speak thé lingo, can’t be bothered to learn about a country, it’s people & it’s culture… Just stay at home, get fat and eat your MacDonalds.

    Reply to this comment
  29. I remember when my French friends were in town they were blown away by our Canadian Shoppers Drug Mart! They just thought it was the most extravagant thing ever for a pharmacy, which technically, is very true! And Amen pour les Soldes! We’ll be there in July so I’m very excited … and scared for my wallet!

    Reply to this comment
  30. William

    01. Sep, 2012

    LOL! I enjoyed your respectful and quite acurate statement and vision of France. I lived in the US and was amazed you could buy snacks and sodas at the drugstore!?! What a funny place to sell these products (imho). Ah la bise, even us the French are sometimes confused but not about which side to start with but about how many? 2 or 3? It depends on where you come from! (no fixed geographical rules on that one!)
    I gather that you are not a drinker since you didn’t mention a truly amazing fact that is that you can buy beer at McDonald’s in France (not just Paris, everywhere…) and you don’t need to buy food! (laws may have changed since I was last there). I remember the face of the guy at McD. in N.Y. when I asked for a beer!… and YES it sucks big time that every shops are closed on Sundays and a lot of them also on Mondays. I am now living in China where everything is open 7 days a week, including banks! I was quite astonished to be able to open an account on a Sunday afternoon. Not ever likely to happen in France! Sunday is SACRED!!! I’m a French person who lived in France, The US, England and China for the past 35 years. Travelling is the best way to understand cultures, starting with your own!
    All the best.

    Reply to this comment
  31. William

    01. Sep, 2012

    I forgoto to say that we do tip, we might not leave as much as we used to but we do. Service in Northern America is provided by people who have no other option: they are either uneducated or they are students who are paying for their (ridiculously high) school fees so they do their best to give service and people leave crazy tips because ‘been there, done that’ before.

    I need to explain something to you and probably to a lot of people: ‘service compris’ on a restaurant check is absolutly NOT tips. It is the barman/waiter’s wage, whatever you leave on top of that is ‘free’ money (as you don’t pay taxes on it). I know for having worked as a restaurant manager. Since prices have increased a lot with the change to the euro, less people are leaving tips so waiters give less service (the snake eating its tail)… I wouldn’t leave as much as you guys do in the States but I would feel bad not to leave anything.

    We DO like cold drinks, not ice cold as it ruins your teeth, give you headaches… Im not too sure where you experienced that.

    Hope this clarifies that!…

    Reply to this comment
  32. Pierre

    03. Oct, 2012

    I really liked your article.
    And I must admit that all you describe is absolutly true.
    I feel the oppositeway when I try to give “la bise” to a stranger.
    I often have a surprising face in front of me lol

    Reply to this comment
  33. Abhiranjan

    15. Nov, 2012

    Interesting aggregation, thanks!
    I had the opportunity to be in France a couple of times. Once in July, and again in November. I could still find things on sale (les soldes). It probably was a special ‘sale’ weekend, not sure though. Makes me uncertain the Jul and Jan thing you mentioned.

    Reply to this comment
  34. Mathieu

    26. Aug, 2013

    Well, you never leave your shopping cart and forget to take your 1 € back. I actually wonder if you ever lived in France since you exaggerate every little thing you describe, which i have never experienced there after 30 years living. But it’s just a blog so that foreigners can laugh about it, right ? Sorry if we are able to tell one red wine from another, that we do not drink it cold (and – above all – NOT with Orangina nor coke during the same meal), and that we exactly know what we do when we kiss people to say hello and that allows us in a short time to know little about their character and moods.

    But all of this may be too complicated for you ;)

    Have a nice day!

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie-Eve Vallieres

      26. Aug, 2013

      I guess my vision of France just isn’t the same as yours. And that’s okay. This is a subjective post.

      Reply to this comment
  35. Myriam

    19. Oct, 2013

    First, hi everyone !
    I think that what you said was a bit stereotypical, you discribe French as weird and rude (I’m French), but it depends on which side of the country you were.
    Drugstores are named “pharmacie” in France, it is a place where you buy drugs to heal yourself.
    We do cheer in France but not with the people we don’t know,but with our friends or family. American and French have different cultures, we don’t act like Americans do.
    Also, Parisians are known as rude but this is a “cliché” too. parisians are just busy. And when tourists come to France, Parisians expect them to try to speak French or to at least say “Bonjour Madame, parlez vous anglais?” Which is a sign of respect. But sometimes they don’t get that.

    With all my respect.
    (Oh and if you want some ice for you water, you can ask :))

    Reply to this comment

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