Traditions and customs of France

What traditions and customs are there in France?

Extensive explanation of the duties, customs and traditions of France, a European country.


Food in daily life

Food plays an important role in the country’s social life. Wine and cheese are a source of national pride and reflect regional differences. Meals are ritualized and full of social and cultural meaning. There are also political aspects in the meaning of food.

For example, recently there has been much concern about the quality of “engineered” foods and a rejection of foods that have been genetically altered. Another recent concern was vache folle (mad cow disease); the French refused to import English beef, which has been a major problem in the EU.

The three main meals are le petit déjeuner (breakfast), le déjeuner (lunch) and le dîner (dinner). Although the midday meal had great importance in an agricultural economy and is still the main meal in rural areas, there is a tendency for families to eat the largest meal in the evening.

Breakfast is a light meal of bread, cereal, yogurt, and coffee or hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner generally include several courses, at least a first course (“l’entree”) and a main course (“le plat”), followed by cheese and/or dessert.

In restaurants, it is common to have a price that includes all these dishes, with a variety of dishes. The children eat an after-school snack, le goûter or quatre-heures, which usually includes biscuits, bread and jam or chocolate, and a drink.

Meals involve a succession of courses eaten one at a time. A typical family meal starts with soup, followed by vegetables and a meat dish, and then a salad, cheese, and dessert. Wine is commonly served at meals. Children begin drinking wine at family dinners in their early teens, often drinking wine diluted with water.

Most of the daily food preparation is done by wives and mothers in family settings, even if both spouses work full time.

The need to prepare healthy meals that reflect traditional values ​​is a growing source of stress for working women who feel pressed for time. Fast foods are becoming more prevalent, and fast food is a growing trend.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Large family gatherings and dinner parties include more elaborate food preparation and more courses than everyday family meals. On such occasions, the drink is more important. An aperitif is served with small sandwiches or appetizers before the meal. Different regions have particular aperitifs: pastis is associated with the south of France and Suze (gentian liqueur) with Auvergne.

The wines complement the courses. Champagne is often served to mark ceremonial occasions and is drunk after the meal. This is followed by coffee and a digestif (liqueur). It is not uncommon for ceremonial meals to last three or more hours. In Normandy, a tradition that consists of having a glass of calvados after each course makes the meal even longer.

Holidays are associated with special foods. Catholic families who attend midnight mass serve elaborate meals on Christmas Eve. These meals include salmon, oysters, turkey, and bûche de noël cake. In many regions, crepes are eaten on February 2, the feast of the Virgin.

The ceremonial nature and symbolism of food are evident in rural wedding ceremonies. Often the food and drink mixtures are presented to the couple in a chamber pot in the early morning hours after the wedding. These mixes can include champagne and chocolate or savory soups with carrots and onions.

In many rural regions, it is still common for families to slaughter a pig each winter and make sausages, pâtés, hams, roasts and chops to freeze. These are ceremonial occasions, and each person who helps the family is given a portion of the pig.


In French, “etiquette” means both “etiquette” and “ceremony.” Social class distinctions determine the importance of various forms of correct social behavior. In general, when people greet each other, they shake hands or hug each other with a kiss on both cheeks (called faire la bise).

Kisses are only made when two people are close friends or relatives. For the most part, the hug is done only the first time in a day that one sees someone and is not repeated until one says goodbye. There is also formality in verbal greetings, so one shows respect by adding “Madam”, “Monsieur” or “Mademoiselle” to any greeting.

There are important public and private distinctions. In public spaces, one generally does not smile at strangers or make eye contact with them (for example, on the subway or on the bus) and must keep one’s voice low when speaking. Privacy is also maintained in homes, so doors to bedrooms and bathrooms are kept closed.

When shopping in smaller stores, the shopper usually greets the owner at the entrance, and the owner helps the customer choose the products to buy. It is less common to have free access in a store, although the growth of large hypermarkets and shopping centers is changing this custom.


Religious beliefs

France has been dominated by the influence of the Catholic Church, but the constitution declares it to be a “secular” country. Secularism does not reject religion, but rather tries to prevent a single religion from gaining political control. The Home Secretary is also the Minister for Religions, an office established to ensure representation of various faiths.

About 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. The second largest religion in terms of adherents is Islam. There are about a million Protestants, 700,000 Jews, and 200,000 Orthodox Christians (Russians and Greeks).

There is also a significant Buddhist population. About 15 percent of the population claims to be a non-believer. Religious practice has declined over the last fifty years, with less than 10 percent of the population attending religious services.

The dominance of Catholicism is historically linked to the conversion of Clovis in 496. In most of the country, communes began as parish churches, and most rural towns see the local church building as a symbol of local identity. The church bell rings to mark deaths, wars, and weddings.

French history is marked by religious struggles between Catholics and Protestants, especially during the religious wars of the 16th century. Many Protestants fled during the 17th century, when their religious rights were revoked by Louis XIV.

The French Revolution in the 18th century was in part a reaction to the power and wealth of the Catholic Church. The 1905 law passed during the Third Republic officially separated church and state. The divide between republicans, who supported a secular state, and anti-republicans, who were conservative and Catholic, was strong at the local level in Catholic regions like Brittany at the turn of the century.

Anti-Semitism is symbolized by the Dreyfus Affair, which was triggered in the late 19th century by the trumped-up espionage conviction and death sentence of a Jewish army officer. This divided Republican and anti-Republican factions across the nation. Anti-Semitism was prevalent during the Vichy regime and has resurfaced with the National Neo-Fascist Front.

Folk religion varies by region. Witchcraft beliefs persist in some regions, such as the Vendée. Many Catholic regions combine elements of popular religion and Catholicism in their belief systems.

Religious practitioners

Due to the strong influence of the Catholic Church, priests are the most important religious practitioners at the local level.

The village priest was historically an important presence in rural areas. The triad of priests, mayors, and schoolmasters was a feature of village life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Strong anticlerical beliefs, especially in southern areas, called this status into question.

The shortage of priests has reached a critical point. Reflecting this shortage, as well as declining religious participation, few village churches hold regular services or have a village priest. People must travel to cities to attend mass.

France has a variety of religious practices. Immigrants bring new forms of established and popular religious practices to urban areas. For Muslim immigrants in particular, religious practice is an important way of preserving one’s identity in an assimilationist society.

In rural areas, healers and fortune tellers are consulted. New Age religions are thriving, and herbalists, massage healers, and other practitioners are growing in influence.

Rituals and Holy Places

France was the place of many pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. Most regions have historic churches that are regularly visited on holidays, with processions leading to them. Lourdes is one of the best known pilgrimage sites in the world.

Located in the Pyrenees region, in the southwest, it is visited by five million people each year. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young woman, Bernadette Soubirous, in the Lourdes grotto.

This miracle inspires disabled and sick people to visit this site and drink the waters, which are believed to have healing qualities. Lourdes has a website where you can listen to the church bells and watch the visitors.

Death and the afterlife

The Judeo-Christian tradition dominates beliefs about life after death, and heaven and hell play an important role in cosmology. In traditional rural areas, there was a fatalistic approach to death, and in many regions, such as Brittany, a “cult” of death, especially among older women.

Funerals are important events, which attract the entire community. The cemetery in France is a symbolic site of memory, often visited by older female relatives tending to family plots. Small children often accompany grandmothers to walk through cemeteries.

Secular celebrations

France has several public holidays (“jours feriés”), when schools, museums and shops are closed. These holidays, which include some of religious origin, are: le Jour de l’An-1 January; May Day or Labor Day-1 May; World War II Victory Day-May 8; Easter (date varies); Ascension Day (after Easter); Pentecost Monday; Bastille Day-14 July; Assumption Day-15 August; All Saints Day or Toussaint-1 November; Armistice Day-11 November; and Christmas-25 December.

Along with Bastille Day, Armistice Day is the most patriotic of these holidays, marking the end of World War I. There are speeches and parades in local communities involving local dignitaries and veterans, who lay a wreath at the war memorial.

Bastille Day is the most important national holiday, celebrated in all communes with popular dances, fireworks and other festivities. On this day, a parade is held on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, in which the President and other dignitaries participate.

Bastille Day marks the storming of the state prison, known as the Bastille, by the citizens of Paris during the French Revolution. Popularly known as July 14 (“le quatorze juillet”), Bastille Day celebrates the overthrow of the monarchy and the beginning of the French Republic.

In France, each municipality celebrates a major festival during the year. In some regions, these incorporate religious and secular symbolism. There are dances, parades, sports competitions and other activities.

Arts and Humanities

Arts support

In France, the arts enjoy great support at state, regional and municipal levels. The French Ministry of Culture finances artists, as well as restoration projects and museums.


Oral traditions and folk tales were predominant in pre-modern France. Until the middle of the 20th century, rural communities had veils, in which neighbors gathered in someone’s house around the hearth to exchange stories and tales.

French written literature is considered one of the greatest traditions in the world. The first literary works in French were the 11th-century Chansons de Geste, a series of epic poems.

During the Renaissance, the great French national literature flourished with works by François Rabelais, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, and Pierre de Ronsard. Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped form a national consciousness during this time.

Nineteenth century writers addressed issues of struggles between social classes, clerical and anticlerical forces, and conservatives and liberals. They also developed a form of realist writing that charted the various regional differences and urban-rural divisions in France. François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), Honoréde Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert were the great novelists of this period.

Poets included Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat Lamartine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Writers of the early 20th century include Marcel Proust, Anatole France, Jules Romains, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, François Mauriac, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and André-Georges Malraux.

Post-war French existentialism is associated with the writers Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. The so-called “new novel” came to light in the 1950s and its representatives include Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

France awards several literary prizes each year. These include the Goncourt, the Renaudot, the Medicis, and the Femina.

Graphic arts

The most important graphic arts in France are painting, sculpture and architecture. The prehistory of French art is also important, including the famous cave paintings of southwestern France.

Romanticism in 19th century painting is associated with Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste Ingres. Paintings of peasant life flourished during this century, especially in the work of Jean Courbet and Jean-François Millet.

Impressionism, in which color and light became important, is associated with Claude Monet, (Jean) Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Morissette.

Post-Impressionism followed later in the century, with works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Pierre Bonnard. Among the great painters of the 20th century are Georges Braque and Jean Dubuffet. The most famous French sculptor is Auguste Rodin.

Performing arts

Theater and dance have a strong tradition in France, both in the classical sense and in folklore. As in most of the cultural life of France, Paris dominates the great traditions of the theater.

The great playwrights of France are Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Molière, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas pere et fils, Jean Anouilh and Jean Genet. The Comédie Française de Paris continues to present the classic works of Molière and Racine. Opera is also popular in France, encompassing all social classes.

Street theatre, parades and regional theater productions flourish in the provinces. The city of Toulouse is particularly known for its performing arts.

French cinema is more state-subsidized than other European film industries, and the French have access to more nationally produced films than their neighbours. Many French cities hold film festivals throughout the year, the most famous being Cannes in early summer.

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