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The Country of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

The French are known to be proud of their country — a pride woven into their customs and traditions. From celebrating the end of the French Revolution to marching through the streets with their national motto: this expat guide gives you all the information on the rich culture of France.

At a Glance:

  • The national motto liberté, égalité, fraternité is not only displayed on the one euro coin, but also used in protests and demonstrations.
  • You might get caught up in a strike, or manifestation, by railway company SNCF or airline Air France. These strikes can last from a few hours to a week, and trade unions will do their best to limit the affected passengers.
  • When living in France, differences between the north and the south might come to your attention. The pronunciation of some words differs slightly, and the Mediterranean climate in the south results in a more laidback lifestyle.
  • National holidays are important in French culture, as many  mark important historic events. For example, Bastille and Armistice Day are widely celebrated throughout the country with parades and church services.

How France Got Its Cultural Identity

From the Gauls in the Iron Age to the modern “hexagone”, France has had many years to develop its traditions and customs. Many historic events have shaped the country, especially the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. After the revolution, France’s monarchy with its rigid social structure, shifted to a more modern nation with greater social mobility where not only the government had political power, but also the people.

Although Paris is often seen as a “model for the surrounding regions, there are huge differences between the capital city and the rest of the country. The expression “la France profonde” is used to describe the provincial towns, the little villages, and the agriculture of the countryside. In our article on the different regions in France, you can read all about the different regional cuisines and their specialties.

In addition to France’s metropolitan territory, former colonies including Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana also contribute to France’s history and culture. These overseas departments all have their own elected regional councils, just like the regions from the mainland. In addition, they all have their own cultural and linguistic traditions that make them unique and attractive for both expats and tourists.

Taking to the Streets with Their Motto

The national motto of France is liberté, égalité, fraternité. Maximilien Robespierre first used it in a speech at the time of the French Revolution, and it has since been a slogan at protests, press conferences, and on monuments. The three words are also displayed on the one euro coin. Some political factions have shown resistance to this motto, but most French people consider it to be linked with their national identity and heritage.

Les Français consider a demonstration or a strike (les grèves) their constitutional right, and it is therefore not unusual to stop working for a few days. Major demonstrations against the government’s policy usually occur in Paris, where the protesters will walk from Place de la République to Place de la Bastille. Taking to the streets in France can be violent, and the media usually fuels the situation with daily coverage. Employees of national railway service SNCF and airline Air France have organized major strikes in the past, concerning their salary and working conditions. Trade unions will try to announce a call for strike as soon as they can.

A Laidback Lifestyle

To understand the way French society works, you have to see it as a melting pot of many different nationalities. France is popular with immigrants, and influences from outside of the country have found their way into everyday life. When moving to France — whether you go for the north or the south — you will probably experience some form of culture shock.

People in the south enjoy a Mediterranean climate with hot summers. They spend more time outside, and meet more people as a result of the piazza lifestyle. In the north — with a climate much like England — they tend to stay inside more and have a smaller but perhaps more close-knit group of friends.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the work life balance can be very different from other countries. The workweek consists of 35 hours and on Sundays the shops are closed. In the south, shops even close in the afternoon to take a two hour lunch break. As there are a lot of popular tourist destinations in the south of France, their lifestyle is more leisurely and slow paced. If you want to know more about social customs, please read our Living in France guide.

Celebrating the Republic

The majority of French people are Roman Catholic, which means that there are numerous traditional feasts that people have off work. Moreover, there are eleven national holidays in France, including the celebrations of these three historic events:

Le Jour de l’Armistice

This is a day where the French remember those who died or were injured in the First World War. There are special memorial services held in churches throughout the country. The president of France will lay flowers at public memorial sites. This day generally has a solemn mood, and just like other bank holidays, the majority of shops and restaurants will be closed.

La Fête de la libération

This holiday celebrates the end of World War II on 8 May 1945, and the freedom of France that followed. Schools, colleges, and universities will focus their lessons on Nazi oppression and the war in the period leading up to this day. As everyone has a day off, many people attend parades and church services. Some display the French flag outside of their houses, as well as on public buildings.

Le Quatorze Juillet

This fête nationale celebrates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, an important event at the beginning of the French Revolution. Many people attend events and parades that are organized throughout France. Service men and women also participate in an annual military parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. At the end of the day, this celebration is closed with spectacular fireworks that are set off from the Eiffel Tower and the gardens of Trocadéro.


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