10 French Stereotypes & Myths About Parisians to Ditch Now

Last Updated on January 23, 2024

French stereotypes can be fun to throw around-- but can they be trusted? Rights-free image from Pixabay
French stereotypes can be fun to throw around– but can they be trusted? Rights-free image from Pixabay

What is it about the stubborn, enduring power of French stereotypes? Most people indulge in throwing them around from time to time. What American hasn’t mockingly imitated French speech with a guttural, nasal sound more akin to the cries of an ailing goose than the sound of a Gallic person speaking? And of course, almost everyone (even French people outside of Paris) love to attribute all manner of nasty character traits to Parisians, from rudeness to laziness and superficiality.

Hollywood movies and TV shows certainly haven’t done much to add complexity to our understanding of France and its people– just think of Kevin Kline hammily playing Meg Ryan’s Parisian love interest in French Kiss (you’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten, or never seen, this utterly forgettable film), or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which shows the capital as a glittering utopia in which almost everyone is a wealthy intellectual type?

And of course, Netflix’s Emily in Paris is a show that’s thrived on casually bandying around French and Parisian stereotypes, from the ultra-cool, scheming and fashionable boss, Sylvie, to Emily’s sex-crazed colleague Luke. And it’s admittedly sometimes fun, in its spun-sugar superficiality and slightly camp aesthetics.

But while such stereotypes and preconceived notions can be amusing, they have a way of blinding us to cultural diversity and complexity. Especially when traveling and encountering a new place, it’s important to engage in a deeper way with the host culture, taking care not to make blind assumptions about people before we’ve even initiated a conversation with them.

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While certain cultural stereotypes occasionally hold tiny grains of truth, more often than not they’ll put up unfortunate barriers between you and the people you come across. To separate the cliches from genuine cultural differences, read on to find out which myths and stereotypes about French people are the most pervasive– and why they should be ditched now.

In what follows, I and a friend who’s lived in Paris for over a decade compare our respective perceptions of why certain stereotypes have stuck– and why they’re most often false. Please note that most of the observations we make are about Paris, which means you should certainly not take them as generalizations about French people as a whole!

And all should be absorbed with a hearty grain of salt (preferably some good sea salt from Brittany). These are merely our subjective experiences, and we’re in no way suggesting “authority” on how French people behave, think or feel.

Stereotype #1: French people are rude and snobby–especially Parisians

Common french stereotypes: one is that Parisians are rude and snobby. Celine Ylmz/Unsplash

CT: This is a stereotype held by French people outside the capital, too, and it can have a grain of truth at times (though the city counts plenty of perfectly nice and friendly people). The fact is, Paris is a global metropolis, and like in any comparably-sized city around the world, people are busy and stressed, and somtimes behave in grouchy and unsociable ways here.

But for every time I’ve encountered rudeness or brusqueness from a Parisian, I’ve also encountered double the number of random acts of kindness and generosity, along with affectionate teasing, cheerful banter, etc. And outside of Paris, I’ve almost invariably found French people to be warm, sincere and willing to help.

I think you have to take French people (and, again, especially Parisians) on their own terms. They tend to respond more to laid-back-but sincere attitudes than they do to wide, forced smiles and declarations of “excitement”– and a bit like New Yorkers, they prefer straight talk to beating around the bush.

Ask for what you want or need matter-of-factly and politely, and you’re more likely to be respected. Also try to make sure to open every interaction with a “Bonjour”. This can take some getting used to, but having a sense of self-humor and adaptability goes a long way here.

{Related: The Top French Etiquette Rules to Learn Before Your Trip}

CD: I completely agree. Unlike in most big cities in America, a Parisian will go out of their way to walk you down the street to show you the store you’re looking for, or ask you with full sincerity how your day was at the neighborhood cafe.

When French people are nice and helpful, they mean it, which is far from the truth in most American cities, where fake friendliness and plastic smiles sometimes reign. But this passion can turn aggressive if twisted the wrong way, and I’ve witnessed more ridiculous displays of rudeness and human ugliness in Paris than anywhere in the world.

When a Parisian is in a bad mood, everyone knows it. But when they’re in a great mood, everyone knows that too. As for snobbishness, I’d say the only times I’ve seen it is after having broken some unwritten French cultural code, like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during my lunch break, or munching on popcorn in an arthouse movie theater.

Stereotype #2: French people are all Sartre-reading, chain-smoking intellectuals

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a café in Paris/author unknown

Films and TV shows routinely depict French people and Parisians as gloomy existentialist philosophers or poets who sit around all day chain-smoking in cafes and discussing politics or art. The reality?

CD: There’s probably no better way to get a representative sampling of people than in the Paris metro. Here, instead of beret-wearing, Proust-reading philosophers, you’ll find nine out of ten people on their smartphones – playing video games, watching YouTube and texting friends, with electro music blaring out from their headphones.

However, French people in general still typically hold culture in the highest regard, and the many people who read on the metro will often notice stolen glances from their fellow riders, who are eager to know (and perhaps judge) what is being read.

And you’ll always find that small smattering of French people who get their kicks from throwing around Sartre’s philosophies in cafés while chain-smoking (now outside on the terrace), but this isn’t generally the case.

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CT: In my experience, the three most common conversations I hear on the street, at work, or while hanging out in cafes in Paris involve real estate, family issues, and food, in no particular order. It’s relatively rare to hear someone discussing the merits of [French philosophers] Foucault and Derrida or pondering the meaning(lessness) of existence.

On the other hand, French people in general value the arts in ways I find very positive, and I’ve heard plumbers cite French poet Rimbaud and barmen discussing politics in wonkish ways.

It is definitely a society in which arts and “big ideas” are valued. You just don’t talk about that stuff all the time.

Stereotype #3: French people don’t (or won’t) speak English

crepe maker in paris
A vendor prepares fresh crepes in Paris– and probably speaks some English.

CD: Until around the 2010s, this one was slightly true. But Parisians [in particular] have come a long way in adapting more tourist-friendly practices, and those working in the service and tourism industries typically now learn English to the best of their ability.

Despite their modesty and ever-present self-deprecation, most French people have a baseline knowledge of English, if not total fluency. English has become the international language, and while the French tend to get stuck in their ways, they’ve come to realize that they can’t scrimp on this one and English is here to stay.

{Related: How to Understand French & Parisian Humor?}

What the French still don’t like, however, is the assumption that they must speak English immediately at the beginning of an exchange. So when venturing out, be sure to smile politely and say “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” before asking for directions or interacting in other ways with locals.

CT: I agree. In my experience, there’ s also a big generational gap: younger French people have grown up under the European Union, and in a much more globalized context. As a result they more readily (and easily) speak English. I do suggest learning some basic travel French before your trip.

That goes a long way in winning over locals and showing them you respect their language and culture, even if you can’t really speak French.

Stereotype #4: French people are all super-stylish and thin

CD: Paris has always been considered one of the fashion capitals of the world, and in certain well-to-do and “posh” parts of the city, this does hold true to a degree. Step into the Louvre-Tuileries or Passy neighborhoods and you might indeed wish you had left your Crocs at home and gone on that pre-vacation crash diet.

But it must be remembered that the price of real estate in parts of Paris usually correlates to one’s capacity to keep up with the dictates of fashion, and the ultra-posh areas are few and far between.

The majority of everyday Parisians live in the more affordable outer ring neighborhoods, where rent doesn’t break the bank and getting dressed or counting calories is not a priority. One thing is true, however: while Parisians are certainly not always be stylish and thin, they’re rarely sloppy, no matter their size, age, or bank balance.

Even a pair of sweatpants takes on a new meaning here. So why not put a little thought into what you put on your back before stepping out of your hotel? It’s not a place to break out the oversized tee and holey- jeans look (unless that happens to be the one currently promoted by the fashion industry).

CT: I did read somewhere once that French people spend a larger amount of their income on clothes than Americans do, but I don’t know how factual that was. Back when I was teaching English to business people in Paris, I was surprised to note that some of my students who couldn’t be earning much above minimum wage as secretaries or receptionists always seemed to have endlessly varied and put-together wardrobes. They must have been spending a large percentage of their earnings on clothes.

But on the streets, most Parisians (and French people) just look like “normal” people, come in all shapes and sizes as anywhere else, and Fashion Week barely registers as an event for 95% of the population, despite Vogue or Marie Claire proclaiming otherwise.

Stereotype #5: French people don’t bathe frequently or wear deodorant

CD: Before my first trip to Europe, I actually thought this one was true, however laughable. I assumed that French people, in their berets and sailor-style striped shirts, recoiled at the thought of daily deodorant. Oh, how wrong I was. I’m not sure where this myth came from, but there is virtually no truth in it. French people, with their historic love of perfume, are certainly concerned about smelling nice when they walk out the door.

CT: I agree that this is a completely baseless stereotype, but I’ve been told that it has some history to it. Pre-World War II, France and Paris, like much of Europe, had very limited indoor plumbing. This meant that most poople did not have access to baths and showers in their homes and often had to either share bathroom facilities with neighbors, or use public bathing facilities.

You can see many of these historic buildings, called les bains douches municipaux, around town in Paris to this day, and they are still used by economically underprivileged Parisians, or by people experiencing homelessness. As a result, this stereotype of bathing relatively infrequently stuck, despite Paris (and the rest of France) rapidly modernizing and France becoming a wealthy country after 1945.

Stereotype #6: French people are all natural seducers

CD: Who hasn’t dreamed of a dapper Frenchman, flicking his luscious locks over his ear and reciting poetry in your ear, or the ever-charming French woman, whose classic style and aloof airs leave you wanting?

When you tell a French person that they are thought of the world over as some of the greatest lovers, most will laugh in your face. They can’t understand how “French kiss” has entered into the common English lexicon or why French men are considered to be the ultimate romantics.

While the French do love good wine and witty conversation, their relationship habits and tribulations are virtually the same as anyone else’s.

CT: Um, no comment. This one is just laughable, and in my mind barely merits a response.

Stereotype #7: French people all take alcohol-laden, two-hour lunches

Train Bleu paris

CT: If you go into France’s smaller towns, this is occasionally true. But in Paris, hardly anyone has time to take two hours to dine in the middle of the workday. More often then not, Paris is becoming more like an American city, offering expedited service or lunch deals in restaurants at noon. Fast food and street food are also becoming increasingly popular, with the burger truck outside my workplace seeing lines halfway down the block at lunchtime.

More often than not, though, Parisians will stop into one of the many bakeries in the city, grab a sandwich and eat on the go. And what about wine? Drinking at noon is less common in the big city, but for those who choose to partake, the practice is certainly not frowned upon.

CT: As with so many other stereotypes on this list, there’s a class factor at play here, in my opinion. I’ve noticed that executives and people working in the higher echelons of government or business do tend to enjoy fancy, long lunches most days– but your average office worker or teacher takes an hour or less to eat a sandwich at their desk or chat with co-workers in the company cafeteria.

One thing I do find humorous-slash-exasperating: in Paris, people will sometimes scold you for eating in the street. I’ve had people sarcastically wish me “Bon Appetit!” while I unceremoniously scarfed down a sandwich and rushed to my next appointment.

Decorum is still important here in ways that I, as a native Californian who grew up with much looser rules around these sorts of things, sometimes find excessive.

Stereotype #8: French people are lazy and hate working

A beach in Antibes, France/Diane Picchiottino/Unsplash

CT:  This one is patently untrue, but you have to throw out assumptions about what “loving work” means. French people don’t typically have a work ethic that Anglo-Saxons associate with being enthusiastic about one’s job. Instead, they believe there’s a time and a place for everything. While they’re at work, they concentrate much harder and are more efficient than Americans per work hour– and may be some of the world’s most productive workers, according to numerous studies.

But when they play, they play– and guilt-free. They relish their free time, and they have lots of it– upwards of seven weeks of paid holiday per year, for those lucky enough to have permanent contracts. So you can be envious of their free time, but calling them lazy is simply unfounded. I still do enjoy Pink Martini’s inspired song on the subject of wanting to blow off work, “Je ne veux pas travailler”, but nevertheless…

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CD: It’s true that if you work for the state (in French public service workers are called fonctionnaires) and have a regular 35-hour work week, you are probably counting down every last second until you can clock out at the end of the day. In this case, one is not lazy but simply hates one’s job.

This phenomenon, of course, can be found the world over. But as for everyone else– salaried, self-employed, working for private companies, etc – you don’t leave work until the work is done, especially in Paris. While Parisians generally pull fewer 70-hour work weeks than the likes of New Yorkers or Tokyo-ites, they as a whole work longer days than anyone else in France.

So like you said, when it’s time to take a vacation, they jump at the chance and don’t think twice. Here in France, people work to live, not live to work. This appreciation of the good things in life is what makes France’s quality of life so enviable. 

Stereotype #9: Most French people hate (or at least don’t respect) Americans

CD: There was admittedly a bit of animosity in the air in, for example, the early 2000s during the Bush administration days and the onset of the Iraq war, when it sometimes just seemed wiser to say that you were Canadian when out and about in Paris.

These days, though, Americans are seemingly looked upon with seemingly never-ending fascination. While Parisians’ attitude towards Americans certainly swings back and forth between disgust and jealousy, to obsession and admiration, “hate” is a strong word.

CT: I think French people often pride themselves on supporting the underdog and criticizing the powers that be, so many, if not most, can be critical of American foreign policy, for instance. Also, the French, like Americans, believe in their own “exceptionalism”.

But they also eat out at McDonald’s (locally referred to as “MAC-Do”) more frequently than any other Europeans, rave at any opportunity about their fantastic trip to “Le GRAHN Can-eeon” or their roamings on Route 66, flock to exhibits about Bob Dylan and Hollywood cinema, and love American TV shows and blockbuster summer movies like anyone else does.

I once heard someone comment that France and the US have the equivalent of a stormy but very passionate marriage, and I think there’s a grain of truth there. A little rivalry and resentment? Sometimes. But lots of love and mutual admiration, too.

Stereotype #10: Parisians are mostly white, wealthy and live somewhere near the Eiffel Tower

CT: I partly blame filmmakers like Woody Allen and his cute but ridiculously unrealistic Midnight in Paris for perpetuating this myth. Paris is an incredibly diverse metropolis that does include a wealthy minority, but most of the city is working class to middle class, with all skin colors represented and an incredible panoply of languages spoken.

I really think it’s a shame that those who depict Paris in entertainment continue to propagate a myth that all the city’s inhabitants sit around drinking Dom Perignon, eating Ladurée macarons and gazing out their bedroom window at the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.

It’s simply untrue. Even the beloved French film Amelie has rightly been accused of whitewashing the Montmartre neighborhood it’s set in. The “real” Paris is far more interesting and diverse than these entertainment vehicles suggest.

CD: I think this myth goes much further back than Woody Allen. If we look at films like An American in Paris with Gene Kelly, or Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn, that sort of image of Paris was already well in place. Since these simple times, Paris has morphed into a modern metropolis, with lots of immigration, tourism, poverty and crime to add into the mix.

Paris is more diverse than it ever has been, and probably more so than other big cities in nearby European countries. The city is truly cosmopolitan, and I think it’s better this way.

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