Top Myths About France and French People

Medieval bridge in old french town
WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

We all know those stereotypes about the French: they don't use deodorant, women don't shave their underarms, they are rude, they hate Americans, and they all go topless at the beach.

When you visit France, you may find that some of these preconceived ideas are true, but perhaps only with certain individuals, not with the French as a whole. Don't be too quick to accept these myths and urban legends. The truth is far more interesting. 

  • 01 of 12
    Saint Medard District in Paris, France
    Bruno De Hogues / Getty Images

    This is easily the commonest stereotype about the French, and the most inaccurate. The French are among the friendliest and most helpful people you'll encounter. But like every other nation, there are cultural differences that lead some to believe the French are rude. The French tend to be more direct than either the Brits or the Americans; they say what they think without dressing it up in fancy language and that can come across as rude.

    As with all things, the key is to understand the culture and to learn at least some basic French terms before you go. A very little effort towards understanding will go a long way to getting friendly treatment from the French who'll appreciate your efforts.

  • 02 of 12
    L'Hermione in Rochefort
    Melissa Shales

    This generality is completely untrue. The French, in fact, do a much better job than Americans in separating the idea of the American people from the American government. Of course, there are some French people who dislike Americans, but most are friendly and polite to their U.S. visitors. In fact, French teens and young adults often try to emulate Americans.

    Americans have been part of France for a very long time, either visiting or living there. There are some intriguing stories. Did you know that Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was educated in St. Omer in northern France at the Jesuit College?

    And remember the story of General Lafayette, the 18th-century French soldier and aristocrat from the Auvergne who went to fight with the Americans in the War of Independence against the British. The French were so enamored of this piece of their history that they built a full-scale replica of Lafayette's frigate then sailed it to the U.S. and back in 2015.

    You can see the French-American connection by visiting the frigate L'Hermione in Rochefort on the French Atlantic Coast. But check first because the frigate tends to sail around the coast of France during the summer months.

    And finally how about those young Americans who rushed to join the Foreign Legion in France in 1914 before the U.S. officially joined World War I three years later? They all made a huge difference to the French attitude towards the Americans. as did the D-Day Normandy landings.

  • 03 of 12
    Sunny autumn day at Jardin des Tuileries in Paris
    EschCollection / Getty Images

    While you may meet an occasional French person whose body odor would take your breath away, or whose breath stinks of garlic, this is actually quite rare. Yes, the French aren't as obsessed as Americans are about daily showers and the scent of soap. But most practice perfectly acceptable hygiene, and it is unusual to encounter a person who truly stinks.

    The center of the world’s perfume industry is in Grasse in southern France so you associate France with perfume as a result. Today, you can visit La Cour des Senteurs (The Scent Courtyard) which is a newly opened area in Versailles dedicated to the culture of perfume.

  • 04 of 12

    French Women Don't Shave

    woman near eiffel tower
    Getty Images/Sam Edwards

    This may have been the case in the past but today you rarely see a French woman who needs to shave. French women not only have a wonderful sense of style, but are always impeccably groomed which is one of their great assets. 

    In Paris, even women going to the boulangerie to buy the daily baguettes and flutes are often beautifully turned out sans hair on the legs or underarms. 

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  • 05 of 12
    View of beach huts umbrellas.
    Grant Faint / Getty Images

    Sure, you will find some exposed chests on the French beaches. Many women, however, do remain covered. As a female sun-seeker, you won't feel out of place keeping a bikini top on at most beaches. Some beaches tend to be more topless than other beaches, but there is almost always a mix of women with tops on and tops off. 

    Tourist beaches along the Riviera and Atlantic coast are more likely to be places to sunbathe sans top.

    And if you want to bare all, you can visit a famous nudist and naturist beach in France

  • 06 of 12
    euros
    Getty Images/Brand New Images

    It can be expensive to visit France if you aren't careful, just as it is for any foreign country, particularly if you are visiting for the first time and don't know the tricks.

    Like everywhere in the world, there are so many ways to save a few euros here and there, and they truly add up. Something as simple as your decision on a destination can save you hundreds. Choosing an inexpensive three-star hotel can do the same.

    Eating breakfast at a bakery instead of your hotel can even save you dozens of euros, especially over a week's time.

  • 07 of 12
    France, Paris, hand of a woman holding a glass of wine and a cigaret
    Daniel Riffet / Getty Images

    Yes, the French do smoke. But there are plenty of people who don't. The country has come a long way towards being more friendly to non-smokers and now has smoking bans in effect in public places.

    Sure, you'll see people lighting up outside offices, but that's the same the world over. When it comes to public places like restaurants, there's a pretty severe ban.

     

  • 08 of 12
    Medieval bridge in old french town
    WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

    Bullfighting, medieval villages, and adventuring may not be the vision you have of France. Some of Europe's most rugged mountain climbing, skiing, ice climbing, white-water kayaking, and hiking are appealing to men as well as adventurous outdoorsy women. Hearty and heady beers draw the beer ​connoisseur. There's heated fervor for soccer matches.

    So who says France isn't testosterone heaven? Having said that, France is best known for some aspects that aren't sterotypically masculine, like high fashion, women's shoes, fabulous cuisine, and wine. That doesn't mean a guy can't have a good time in France; there really is something for everybody.

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  • 09 of 12
    Discussing olives in rue Mouffetard shop
    Atout France/Cedric Helsly

    If you're visiting a major city like Paris or Nice, you can probably muddle through without any knowledge of French. But elsewhere some French people will take you as rude if you address them in English (particularly if you do it slowly and loudly).

    You should at least learn some basics to avoid appearing inconsiderate. If you visit rural areas or even smaller cities, learning at least some French is crucial. Even Bonjour (good day) and Merci (thank you) will help. And you'll find that if you are struggling to make yourself understood, but are obviously trying, then the French will suddenly burst into English with a broad smile.

  • 10 of 12
    public toilets
    Getty Images/P. Eoche

    Sometimes this is true. However, most of the public toilets in France are perfectly acceptable. Shopping malls, top hotels, and upscale restaurants feature the best toilets.

    Cafe toilets are usually OK. You will, on occasion, still encounter the notorious hole-in-the-ground squatting toilet, particularly at the small highway stops called Aires, so avoid these where possible.

    Always have small change on you as many restrooms are pay only. Before you enter, check to see if toilet paper is outside the stall. Sometimes, there are dispensers in the sink and mirror area, but no paper inside the stall. It's not a bad idea to carry your own tissues, just in case.

  • 11 of 12
    elegant thin french woman
    Getty Images/Elke Hesser

    This is not true; there are overweight French women. But, on the whole, there are less large ladies in France than in the U.K. or the U.S.A.

    It’s particularly noticeable in cities. This is partly down to vanity. French women like to look good and are often immaculately turned out. Fashion is important in a country where the fashion industry has always ruled.

    But it’s mainly attributed to the French diet, which is very good and generally healthy. The French as a culture set aside a time and place for food. It is much more customary to eat food sitting at a cafe or at home and the portions are reasonably sized. 

  • 12 of 12
    Escargots, Taramasalata and Smoked Salmon for Sale in Deli Window, France
    David Burton / Getty Images

    Now, this is a matter of opinion; it's true that some French specialties can be considered as disgusting while, if you are adventurous, others turn out to be a nice surprise.

    We all know about snails. And frogs’ legs are also a typical French starter (or were before the frog industry was decimated and they had to be imported from China). In fact, they taste like chicken.

    Introduce your children early to these foods. Nonetheless, chitterlings, gizzards, tripe and the like are acquired tastes. Every culture has it's unique foods and ways to prepare them. With classically trained chefs becoming TV stars, the American public is getting used to a broader range of dishes.