- Forming French Culture: History of the French Language
- French Culture and Philosophy: Understanding the World
- French Writers and their Impact on French Culture
- The Face of France: French Celebrities You Ought to Know
- Loving French Culture: Attaining French Citizenship
- No Faux-Pas Possible: The Etiquette of French Culture
What do you think about when you think about France? French food? Its art and architecture? The Eiffel Tower, perhaps, and the Arc de Triomphe, the palace of the Louvre or other famous monuments? Or the impact of French artists on European art, the Romantic Delacroix, the impressionists such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Dégas, or post-impressionists such as Paul Cézanne or Gaugin? Or perhaps its history, with Catherine of Medici’s persecution of the Protestant Huguenots?
Or have you considered its languages and their fascinating evolutions, the myth surrounding French celebrities, or its literary heritage? Here is an overview of some fascinating aspects of French culture you may never have considered.
Forming French Culture: History of the French Language
Birth of the French language
The basis for the French language came from two main sources: Latin and the language of the Franks, a Germanic tribe that settled the area of France after the fall of the Roman Empire.
As time progressed, pure Latin was modified and influenced by the Frankish settler’s native tongue. As their Empire spread from the Pyrenees to the Alps, so did their new language. By the time two of Charlemagne’s grandsons swore an oath of allegiance to each other in the city of Strasbourg in 842, the languages of their fiefdoms had already separated into an early version of Old French (Gallo-Romance) and Old High German.
The language of love?
French may now be considered the language of love, but in the Middle Ages it was the Langue d’Oc, spoken in the south of France, that inspired the troubadours and their ideal of courtly love. In the north, poets called trouvères composed similar songs and tales in the Langue d’Oïl, which would someday evolve into our modern French. However, until the Renaissance the troubadours of the south were the greater influence on European courtly culture.
Making French the official language
Starting with the Renaissance and the Hundred Years War, French - or “françois” as it was called - rose to prominence in France just as it disappeared from England (where it had been the language of the Norman aristocracy after William the Conqueror took over).
During that time, French pronunciation evolved into something sounding more like the modern form of the language, over the centuries following the end of the war, French rulers enacted a series of edicts promoting local languages and/or “la langue françoise” over Latin in official acts such as judicial sentences or laws, as they should be perfectly understandable by everyone.
The first of many attempts to ensure the “purity” of the French language started under the Enlightenment, a period of philosophical and scientific advancement that started in the seventeenth century under the reign of Louis XIII. (These would continue into the 20th and 21st centuries.) The Cardinal de Richelieu founded the Académie Française as a keeper of the French language and tasked it with creating a dictionary and grammar.
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A generation later, Louis XIV took his centralisation project one step beyond gathering the nobility around him in his Palais de Versailles and promoted French over regional languages, a process that was taken up again after the French revolutions and which culminated in the 19th century with obligatory primary schooling that spread Metropolitan French and in part forbade the use of local dialects and languages in school.
But whereas in continental France they were slowly eradicating the patois (local languages and dialects such as those spoken in Marseille), overseas the spread of French colonialism was spreading the French language, too - and allowing it to evolve. From Quebec French in which the language simply took a different turn (though English did influence it somewhat), to local creoles that are a mix of French and whatever the local language might be, French is now no longer merely the language of Voltaire and Balzac, but a colourful mix-bag of differently-flavoured creoles and dialects.
French Culture and Philosophy: Understanding the World
Though the Germans claim to be “a people of thinkers and poets”, the same could be said of the French. Some of the most influential French philosophers came from the Hexagon; unsurprisingly, many of them wrote in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where Enlightenment took the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance one step further and paved the way for true scientific research.
However, this required a restructuring of how we see the world, and of religion’s place in it.
Enlightenment: Baroque Philosophers
The Age of Enlightenment not only brought us a fairly useless French dictionary (in its quest for Purity, the Académie’s dictionary failed to include perfectly usual colloquial expressions) but one of the great scientific endeavors of all time: the Encyclopédie Universelle. With articles by all the great minds of eighteenth-century France, its editor, Denis Diderot, was himself an intellectual and philosopher. His philosophical musings include The Philosophical Thoughts (1746), an appeal to the reconciliation of reason and feeling, traditionally in opposition, in order to achieve a psychological balance, and The Skeptic’s Walk (1747), a dialogue between a deist, atheist and pantheist in which each attempts to explain the universe. It was banned for a long time before ever seeing publication (some sources maintain the manuscript was seized by the police as an attack on Christianity), but was finally published posthumously in 1830.
The Enlightenment brought about a new way of seeing the world. This was true not only of scientific endeavours, but of politics as well. Two of the great minds of the era wrote treatises on political philosophy: Mirabeau and Montesquieu.
The two became acquainted in the army and are notable for their interest in social economy and political anthropology, centuries before such subjects came to be taught at universities.
Victor de Riquetis, Marquis de Mirabeau believed that a country’s riches lay in its population, and since that population needed to be fed, a country’s treasure lay in its agriculture rather than trade. His interest in the common man earned him the sobriquet “l’ami des hommes”, the Friend of Man. His treatise on taxation, encouraging direct taxation rather than relying on private “tax famers”, earned him a stint in prison courtesy of the French government and a two-month exile to his estates at Bignon. His views corresponded well with the Physiocratic school of thought founded by Quesnay.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu wrote extensively on the philosophy of history, but is best known for his political work The Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu wanted to do away with the last vestiges of feudal thought as reflected by the États-Généraux, a conclave of representatives from each of the “classes” of society: clergy, aristocracy and commoners. Instead, Montesquieu divided French society into the monarchy, aristocracy and commoners. The kings, as sovereigns, would remain separate from the administrative branch of government, which itself would be divided into the judicial, legislative and executive branches, each tending to its own concerns and keeping an eye on the others by a system of checks and balances - a political system used by many modern democracies. Montesquieu thus influences French politics even today.
Turn of the 19th and 20th centuries: Henri Bergson and Paul Valéry
Henri Bergson lived between 1859 and 1941. His philosophy was influenced by Kant and Spencer insomuch as a critique of their works allowed him to sketch out his theory on free will, introducing the concept of duration in order to harmonise it with theories of causality and creativity. He also coined the idea of the “élan vital”, or vital impetus, to explain evolution beyond a purely mechanical process. His study of creativity also led him to research what causes laughter.
A celebrated poet and mathematician, Paul Valéry wrote a number of musings based on aphorisms or bon mots, some of which he published in articles, others having come from his Cahiers, a diary in which, every day, he put down a thought on any subject, from mathematics to philosophy. His views coincide best with constructive epistomology, but Valéry himself never subscribed to any school.
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French Writers and their Impact on French Culture
Not all French writers were philosophers, of course, nor were all of them Bohemians and free-thinkers who lived from one affair to another, wrote steamy kiss-and-tell stories of eroticism and homosexual love that brought them before the judge for the violation of morals, nor died of venereal diseases - though an astounding number of them did do all that, some of whom you can discover in this article on 10 famous French writers.
Here we shall look at three authors who each, in their own way, left a mark on French culture or even world literature.
In a classical education, Molière is to French schoolchildren what Shakespeare is to English students. Every one of us has read at least one of his plays.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin decided to become an actor at the age of 21; after 13 years on stage he started writing his own plays. Mostly satirical, touching on subjects such as religious hypocrisy, hypochondriacs and avarice, his plays were heavily influenced by the Italian commedia dell’arte, and often involved stock characters such as the incompetent doctor, the lover, etc.
Through the patronage of Louis-Philippe, brother to Louis XIV, he gained the right to perform at court - to general acclaim, although some of his satire, such as the Tartuffe, caused outrage by hitting the aristocracy just a little too close to home.
Generally considered the father of science fiction, Jules Verne (1828-1905) published fantastical tales that somewhere incorporated the most cutting-edge technology of his time, indulging in fantasies of how they might be improved and evolve. Scaphanders, electrical torches, submarines - all found their place in his roaring tales of adventure. From A Thousand Leagues under the Sea and its iconic character, Captain Nemo, to the Journey to the Centre of the Earth to the Mysterious Island, many of the novels from his “Extraordinary Voyages” have been adapted by Hollywood.
Only two of his stories were rejected for publication. One, Paris in the 20th Century, paints an eerily accurate picture of a city - in the 1970s, perhaps, before home computers and, of course, smart phones.
His gift for extrapolating possible technologies based on the possibilities offered by new inventions of his time has influenced a sub-genre of science-fiction, steampunk, in which stories are set Vernesque universes filled with gas lighting, differential engines and dirigeables.
Born of French parents in Algeria, growing up in poverty, Camus studied philosophy and finished his diploma despite suffering from tuberculosis. Though often called an existentialist because of his early friendship with Sartre, he saw himself as an absurdist, seeing the dichotomy between the value of our lives in the grand scheme of things and the value we must give our life to live it to the fullest.
He moved to Paris with his second wife in 1940. Having been a member of first the communist, then the anarchist party, he fought in the French Resistance during World War II.
Camus worked as a journalist for various magazines and wrote several novels and philosophical treatises; he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 his best-known work is L’Étranger (The Stranger), which is part of his absurdist cycle. The Stranger is characterised by the protagonist’s indifference to life around him and the very simple language structure the author uses to underline it. For that reason, it’s a good book for a beginner exercise in reading French.
The Face of France: French Celebrities You Ought to Know
While for most of the 20th century, France was known for its cinema and music, celebrities of French film such as Brigitte Bardot and Luc Besson are now rather overshadowed by France’s politicians.
For example, François Mitterand was, together with America’s Reagan, Russia’s Gorbatchov and Germany’s Helmut Kohl, a symbol of post-war prosperity and change. France’s longest-running president (at a time when the mandate was still for eight years), Mitterand led France from 1981 to 1995. He was a strong voice in the European Economic Community and was one of the main architects of the Maastrich Treaty that founded the European Union in 1993.
More recently, Nicolas Sarkozy, French president from 2007-2012, has made the headlines both with controversial policies and a stormy private life. He divorced his wife shortly after the election, met Carla Bruni, a singer and former model, a month later and married her in 2008. The couple gave the Elysée its first presidential baby in 2011.
His constitutional reforms, modifying some of the checks and balances between Parliament and the Presidency, are among his more controversial acts while in power.
Following Sarkozy in 2012 was François Hollande, France’s most unpopular president to date owing to his reforms on labour laws and pensions. During his presidency, Hollande had an affair with actress Julie Gayet, thus ending his relationship with reporter and acting First Lady Valérie Trierweiler, once more bringing the President’s love life into the papers.
By the 2017 elections, Hollande’s approval ratings were so low he decided not to run for a second term, but endorsed Emmanuel Macron instead, who won against Marine Le Pen and is now France’s current president.
Loving French Culture: Attaining French Citizenship
Is a yearly trip to France not enough to satisfy your francophilia? Or do you already live in France and tire of applying for work visas? Angsty about Brexit and eager to have an EU passport? You can try and apply for French citizenship.
Of course, the easiest way to become a French citizen is to be born French, or at least in France (if you were born on French soil and have lived more than 5 years in France after your 11th birthday, you automatically become a French citizen at 18), but if your family has been living in France for over 25 years, are over 65 and one of your descendants is a French citizen, you qualify. You can also qualify if you are married to a French national, even if you are not currently living in France (though your spouse must be registered as an expatriate at the local French embassy or consulate.)
If none of the above apply but you are over 18 and have been living permanently in France for at least five years and have a basic grasp of the French language, you can contact your local préfecture and see if you qualify. The process takes some time, as your dossier is sent to the ministry in charge of naturalisation and processed there, then your brand-new papers as a citizen of the French Republic sent back to your local préfecture (or embassy).
France supports multiple citizenships, so no need to turn in your British passports!
No Faux-Pas Possible: The Etiquette of French Culture
Now that you are naturalised a French citizen, you need to be able to function in polite French society! What is proper French etiquette?
Remember above all that while French street culture is very informal, French business culture is much more formal than in many other parts of the world. Until you find your footing, always opt for more formality rather than less.
Please and Thank-You
If you are simply having a nice holiday in French, there are four things you need to know:
- Please is s’il vous plaît
- Thank-you is merci
- Hello, how are you is bonjour, comment allez-vous? (informally: Salut, ça va?)
- You will be kissed.
Meet and greet
In the business world, you will be shaking hands; the formal greeting - “bonjour”, or “Ravi de faire votre connaissance” - comes shortly before the handshake, often with a little pause in-between.
Anywhere else - you will be kissed. An acquaintance meets you on the street?
Hop, la bise!
They are introducing you to another acquaintance, or one of their family?
Hop, la bise!
The bise consists of alternate light kisses on each cheek. Most often the lips don’t truly touch your cheek at all, but you will be grasped by the shoulders.
The number of kisses varies from region to region - just go with the flow and you will be fine!
Remember to address anyone you meet for the first time with “vous”, until they offer the more informal “tu”.
Generally speaking, you should always be on time. However, the French do have a more fluid approach to punctuality, so don’t be surprised if your business appointments are a little late. As the newbie, though, it’s better to err on the safe side and arrive early.
Unless, that is, you are invited to someone’s house. Then you should consistently be a quarter of an hour late, to allow the host to make any necessary last-minute touches to the house or meal. If you are running later than 15 minutes behind, you should call to let the hosts know.
French letters are very, very formal, and e-mails have kept more of that formality than in other countries. A letter should start with “Cher Monsieur (Last Name or le + “man’s title or simply”) or “Chère Madame (Last Name or la + “woman’s title”) and end in any one of several formal parting phrases. The most ubiquitous, perhaps is: “Veuillez agréer, Monsieur/Madame le/la (title or name here), à l’expression de mes salutations distinguées”.
As formal as their letter-writing is, most French people simply answer the phone with “Allô?” You are then expected to say “bonjour” and state your name and business.
The French in general keep late hours, but you should not call anyone after 10 PM unless it’s an emergency.
Ready to dive into French culture? Why not tune into French radio, watch France 24 or subscribe the French news magazin Paris Match? Or improve your French grammar and vocabulary with one of our Superprof tutors.