Since the 17th century, France has been regarded as a “center of high culture.” As such, French culture has played a vital role in shaping world arts, cultures, and sciences. In particular, France is internationally recognized for its fashion, cuisine, art, and cinema.

Understanding French culture and traditions can help you better understand your family heritage if you have French ancestors. Discover where you’re from and more about your ancestors with the help of FamilySearch Discoveries

Cultural Variety in France

French culture was historically shaped by Celtic, Roman, and Germanic cultures. As these influences evolved, France became a patchwork of local communities and customs. What’s true for one community may not be true for another. Despite the growing global culture today, France has made an effort to preserve the cultures of its smaller communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about the intricacies of French culture and communities, try exploring books from this list or this list. Or if you’re lucky enough, traveling the French countryside will give you firsthand experience.

An illustration of France showing elements of French culture.

Language

As the official language of France, French is the first language of 88% of the population. Even then, most others speak French as a second language.

However, minority languages flourish in specific regions. For example, eastern provinces speak German while Flemish is spoken in the northeast and Italian is spoken in the southeast. Other communities within France speak several other languages.

Family

The family has served as the founding unit of French society for generations. Traditionally, the family structure could include either extended families or nuclear families. In recent years, that structure has shifted to primarily reflect nuclear families as well as variations such as single-parent households or civil unions known as PACS

A couple riding bicycles in France.

If you have French ancestors, they may have lived together as an extended unit. Find or share stories about your French family with FamilySearch Memories to explore the lives they led.

Religion in France

Most French citizens consider themselves to be Christian (primarily Catholic). Historically, Catholicism played a significant role in shaping French culture and was the state religion until 1789. In French tradition, kings were even crowned within the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral until 1825. 

Notre-Dame de Reims, the Reims Cathedral.

Most of the remaining population today identifies as agnostic or atheist. However, there are also significant groups of Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist residents in modern France.

French Values

The French motto “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” reflects the values of French society. Equality and unity are important to the French. The French also value style and sophistication, and they take pride in the beauty and artistry of their country. 

Family is also highly valued in French culture. Mealtimes are often shared with family, and extended-family gatherings and meals are common over the weekend.

French Cuisine

Meals in France are meant to be enjoyed. Food is made with great care, and mealtimes are a prime time for socializing. While French cooking is recognized around the world, there are many varieties in cooking styles, ingredients, and dishes from region to region. For example, Normandy cuisine is known for seafood and cheeses while Burgundy is known for beef.

That being said, traditional French cuisine is characterized by its cheeses, wines, breads, and sauces. Recently, French cuisine has shifted to reflect lighter fare rather than the more traditional heavy sauces and complicated preparations.

French food at a family table.

Breakfast in French culture is typically light: a French pastry or bread served with a hot beverage. Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, are considered to be the main meals of the day. Formal meals will have four courses: a starter, a salad, a main course, and a cheese or dessert course.

French Fashion

Paris is often regarded as the fashion capital of the world. It is home to several worldwide brands such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel. France became a major influencer in fashion beginning with the reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s. During that time, France became known for its luxury goods throughout Europe.

Today, French style can be described as sophisticated and fashionable. A typical outfit may include dresses or suits with long coats and scarves.

French Art and Media

The arts are deeply appreciated in French traditions. Hobbies and professions are historically shown deep respect for the craftsmanship that goes into them. French literature, painting, and cinema are all historically significant around the world. Works such as Les Misérables or artists such as Monet are some of the most recognizable in the world.

A statue outside of the Louvre museum.

Today, art is still highly regarded in France. The Louvre, housed in Paris, is the largest art museum in the world. If you visit France, you’ll also likely see artists in the streets painting.

French Traditions and Tips for Traveling

If you travel to France, understanding these French traditions might help you prepare:

Greetings

  • Kissing on the left cheek and then the right cheek is a common greeting for informal woman-to-man, woman-to-woman, or man-to-woman interactions
  • Handshakes are a common greeting for man-to-man interactions or formal settings
  • When getting someone’s attention, start by saying “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur

Public Behavior

  • Patrons bag their own food at grocery stores
  • If you speak English, ask someone if they speak English before speaking to them in English
  • It is polite to be formal and reserved, particularly with strangers or acquaintances
  • Quiet tones are expected in public
  • “Dressing down” is not common in France
Visitor at a French bakery.

Eating

  • Beverages are served at room temperature rather than cold or with ice
  • If invited into a French home, it’s customary to bring a small gift such as chocolates, flowers, or candies
  • Appetizers are served with most meals, so don’t fill up before the main dish is served
  • To know when to start eating or how to eat certain foods, observe what the host does
  • Keep both hands at the table while eating, but keep your elbows off the table

If you’re ever uncertain how to behave while in France, observe what locals do. Mimicking the behaviors of French locals will help you remain polite and respectful to their culture and traditions.

French traditions and culture reflect the French values of unity, beauty, respect, and family. If you have French family, which French traditions does your family have? 

Source: New on FamilySearch