Last Updated on September 12, 2023
While the art of the witty quotation is often attributed to English-speaking writers and thinkers– from Wilde to Swift– comparable quips in French tend to really make you stop and reflect.
A bit like a zen koan, they tend to momentarily make your mind feel empty, as your brain attempts to wrap itself around the sense of what’s been said.
But is this really a surprise? After all, France birthed the Existentialism movement in philosophy, encouraging you to ponder the meaning behind personal responsibility, self-realization and agency, whether or not you believe in God.
It’s been a powerhouse of surrealist art and poetry, which makes reality itself appear topsy-turvy.
And in the mid-twentieth century it produced something called poststructuralist theory, with prose from the likes of Jacques Derrida driving graduate students to hair-tearing madness for decades (and counting).
But while notable French quotes tend to center around heavy themes like love and death, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence, and the mostly hopeless but necessary quest for a self-actualized life, this doesn’t mean they’re without wit, or a bit of gleam-in-the-eye fun.
Here are 10 memorable quips and quotes from famous French writers, artists, politicians and other notable figures. After soaking them in, take the quiz below to test your chops.
Can you guess whether Montesquieu, Voltaire, De Gaulle or De Beauvoir said it? Find out by scrolling down.
1. “On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées.” (We resist the invasion of armies, but not those of ideas).
—Victor Hugo, 19th-century novelist, famous for writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.
2. “L’hypocrisie est un vice à la mode, et tous les vices à la mode passent pour vertus.” (Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtues.)
–Molière, playwright, from Don Juan, a comedy first performed in 1665
3. “Il y a des silences qui en disent long comme il y a des paroles qui ne signifient rien” (There are silences that say everything, just as there are words that mean nothing”.)
—Edith Piaf, legendary French musician and performer, in a 1950 letter to her friend Tony Raynaud
4. “Les gens que nous avons aimés ne seront plus jamais où ils étaient, mais ils seront partout où nous sommes.” (The people that we have loved will never again be where they were, but they will be everywhere that we are.”
—Alexandre Dumas, novelist and playwright, famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo
5. “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.” (One isn’t born a woman: one becomes one.”
—Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher and public intellectual, in The Second Sex (1949)
6. “Le doute est un état mental désagréable, mais la certitude est ridicule.” (Doubt is a disagreeable mental state, but certainty is ridiculous.)
–French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote over 50 plays during his lifetime, as well as dozens of treatises and books. He also reportedly imbibed some 40 cups of coffee a day to fuel his manic writing and reading habit.
7. “Le vrai est trop simple, il faut y arriver toujours par le compliqué.” (Truth is too simple. You always need complexity to get to it.)
–George Sand, French novelist, memoirist, and literary critic famous for works including Pauline and Horace— and for her gender-fluid style
8. “Les scélérats se démasquent et leur audace s’accroît journellement… Je suis assez fort pour [leur] tenir tête et les réduire, soyez-en bien persuadé“. (Criminals [or reactionaries] are showing their true faces, and their audacity grows each day. Rest assured that I am strong enough to hold my head up and cut them down.”
—General Toussaint l’Ouverture, Haitian revolutionary and abolitionist who helped end slavery on the island and secure its independence from France and Spain
9. “Dans la vie, rien n’est à craindre, tout est à comprendre.”(In life, nothing is to be feared; everything is to be understood.)
–Marie Curie, Nobel Prize- winning physicist famous for medical breakthroughs including radiation-based treatments
10. “Le désir du privilège et le goût de l’égalité, passions dominantes et contradictoires des Français de toute époque.” (A desire for privilege and a taste for equality: [these have been the] dominant and contradictory passions of the French in every era)
–Charles de Gaulle, former President and leader of the French Resistance during World War II
Ready to Test Your Own Knowledge?
Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, Reed Business Information, WWD, and The Associated Press. She has also been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.