Some French taboos ...  
 A few examples of French sacred cows   French totems

The French venerate some sacred cows and forbid to kill them, as harmful as they can can be. On certain subjects, they will never address the problem coldly and their reaction will always be passionate. Therefore, the problem will never be solved : some French sacred cows cannot be killed. A few examples :

  • Sacred cow #1 : "You have the right to get the education you want", becoming : "no selection of students in university". Today, there is no selection and the major function of the first two years of college is to eliminate unable students (the drop out rate is over 50% every year) ; there is no selection either at higher levels and students who are not admitted in the 5th-year (master M2) program of their choice can take the university to court and win (many court cases in 2015) ; however, the Minister of Education proclaims : "Once again I confirm my absolute refusal of any selection at master's level" (Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Summer 2015); any government official who would use the word "selection" would have all teachers' unions and students' associations against him/her and create the condition for a major strike in universities.

    A wall in a street near the Sorbonne (2015). The posters (by the National Union of Students) say "Equality for all students", "Registration for all in the cursus of their choice", "Right to registration = right to liberty", etc. (credit)

DID YOU KNOW THAT ….? In France, the taboo "no selection for access to college" is so strong that, in 2017, some universities tried a system of random drawing for the admission of students ! Whereas creating a test or an admission based on interviews would be illegal and any non-admitted student would win his case in court, random drawing is not illegal ! The right for any student who has finished high school to be admitted to college is still considered (particularly by the Left) a constitutional right (of course, this concerns university stricto sensu and NOT "grandes ecoles" : read about the French university system).

  • Sacred cow #2 : "It is a right NOT to work on Sundays" becoming : "do not open more shops on Sunday". Very few shops are open on Sundays and it is clearly a problem, particularly for tourists ; in 2015 after months of negotiation between the government and the parliament, a law (Loi Macron) was adopted (after using a constitutional tool (Article 49-3) which makes it possible for issues of major importance and urgency and only once in a legislative term to adopt a law without any possibility of amending it) : it allowed to open certain shops in strictly limited areas and for a maximum of 12 Sundays a year (instead of 5 previously); what an effort for such a limited result!
  • Sacred cow #3 : "There are enough cabs in Paris" translated into : "no cab strike". The number of cabs is limited by the State which delivers a license ; today, the number of cabs in Paris is the same as in the 1930s and clearly too small ; due to the rarity, prospective cab divers have to buy a license from another cab driver and their price is very high ; since 1958, every new government 1/ orders a study whose conclusion is to recommend an increase of the number of cabs, 2/ announces that it will be done, 3/ faces a huge strike, with massive blockades of roads around Paris, 4/ gives up any reform. A symbol of the difficulty to make any change in France, even when Uber threatens their monopoly.

  • Sacred cow #4 : "…The 35-hour work time Law created jobs…" : the law (2000) is an economic nonsense ; it did not create jobs and even the Left does not claim that, but nobody on the Left would ever admit it. An example : in August 2015, Emmanuel Macron, minister of Economy said in a speech : "In the past, the Left may have thought, a long time ago, that politics was to be done against the business world or at least without it (…) that France could be better by working less. Those were wrong ideas." It raised an enormous uproar on the Left where it was considered a brutal attack against the 35-hour Law. Among the reactions from Socialist members of the Parliament : "The battle to reduce work time is an historical one. E.Macron has insulted Jaures, Blum, Mitterrand (…)" or : "I thought Sarkozy (the former Right wing president) was back but I had not figured out that he was back within the government".

  • Read a few examples of what the French sincerely believe

  • More to come ....


Like any other country, the French have totems, such as laws or historical characters, which are respected by everyone. The American have, for instance, the US Constitution or George Washington for such totems. The French do not have the same respect for their constitution (the current one is the thirteenth one…) but they have :

    • General de Gaulle: although during his life, he was violently attacked both by the Left and the Extreme Right and he resigned twice (in 1946 and in 1971), he is now an icon for every Frenchman ;

    • the "Loi de 1905" (1905 Law) put an end to the quarrels between the Catholic church and the State and set the rules of French "laïcité" (secularism) which is a key element of French identity ;

    • `the "Programme du CNR" (Program of the National Council of Resistance) in 1944 : the organization created by the provisional Government of De Gaulle during WW2 set the basis of the French "modèle social" (social model : health insurance, retirement rules, unemployment benefits etc);

    • the government of the "Front Populaire" in 1936, a coalition of Socialists and Radicals, supported by the Communists, which established the first paid vacations for every worker ("conges payes", then two weeks, now five !), the first committees representing the employees (comites d'entreprise), etc ;

    • the "Declaration des Droits de l'Homme" (Bill of Rights) in 1789, which gives the French the nice feeling that they invented democracy ;

    • more to come : among other totems, the French Revolution, Freud and Freudism, etc ...


About the absurdity of the French Labor Laws Code (Code du Travail).

The simplification of Labor Laws is one of the key issues of France after the 2008 economic crisis. Since that date, the unemployment rate has reached a very high level (around 10%), the trade balance has been constantly negative and, generally speaking, it has become clear that French firms are inferior to their foreign competitors in terms of production costs. One of the reasons is the Code du Travail which is a burden for them, mostly for small business which have to follow thousands of complicated rules, designed for large businesses. Three illustrations :
- the Compte de Penibilite (Personal Hardness Account) was created by the previous Socialist administration ; the purpose is to make it possible to retire earlier with full pension for people who have a tiring or dangerous job. A "personal hardship account" was created, each worker getting a certain number of points according to the time spent doing dangerous or tiring tasks and the age of retirement lowered according to the number of points. Ten criteria have been established (lifting weights above X kilos, spending time at a temperature above or below X degrees, being submitted to a noise level above X decibels, climbing up a ladder, turning your back with an angle greater than X, inhaling air containing more that X% of a given molecule, etc…). It's simple : every day, the boss just fills out the corresponding form practically minute by minute ! Do you realize how crazy it is, particularly for small businesses and do you see your plumber doing that for each of his three workers ? (more about this law)
- the Tribunaux de Prud'hommes (Labor Dispute Courts)
are special courts for the conflicts between employers and employees. They are "paritaires" (read about "paritarisme"), i.e. half of the judges are elected by employees and half by employers.They are generally favorable to employees. In case of licenciement abusif (faulty lay off), they fix the amount of penalty owed to the employee and for this compensation, the sky is the limit, which leads to bankruptcy (hundreds of small businesses every year).
- the Medecine du Travail (Healthcare in the Working Place) : by law, each employer must organize and finance a medical organization (internal or sub-contracted) so that any employee can see a doctor when hired and at least once a year at company's expense ; this is (in my view) a very good system and I'm all for it. But this doctor has the power to declare, at any time (recruitment stage or later) that, for medical reasons, the employee is "apt" or "not apt" for the job ; the doctor does not have to disclose the reasons for the decision. If the employee is declared "not apt", the employer must keep the employee and continue to pay him/her but is not allowed to give him/her any work. If the employee is laid off, it is considered a licenciement abusif (faulty lay off) to be subject to court case and punished.

One of the main projects of the administration of Emmanuel Macron, elected in 2017, was a major simplification of the Code du Travail and that meant, in the above cases : abandoning the idea of a personal hardness account, putting a ceiling on the penalty in case of faulty lay off and limiting certain powers of company doctors.

To related pages : history, society, French attitudes, etc...

To table of contents

To top of the page 

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!