The French and money  
 Facts and figures about money    The well-off and their image...
  • Corruption : most French think that their State is more impartial and their civil servants more honest than in other countries. This belief is largely shared. Although this is a difficult domain to explore, most studies (including by NGO Tranparency International) show that the situation in France is just average compared to the other Western countries (ranking 18th) : see figures. In addition to that, the French do not seem to be familiar with the concept of "conflict of interest" : see my column.

  • Emigration : one of the current problems in France is that the flow of people emigrating has become significant :

    • either for tax reasons : wealthy people refusing to pay ISF, the tax on wealth, and moving to Belgium or Switzerland (several hundred a year)

    • or for a better life : young well-educated professionals wishing to find a better paid job in London or in New York more rapidly (10 to 20,000 a year)

    • As one pundit said : " The French keep hunting the rich and wonder why they fly away. They are the only hunters surprised to see the game trying to escape. "

  • Envy : during the 2007 presidential campaign, the Secretary general of the Socialist Party (François Hollande) was asked about the policy of the Left if its candidate was elected. As he had explained they would raise the taxes, he added " I must admit I don't like the wealthy ". When the journalist asked at what income he considered somebody wealthy, he said 4,000 Euros a month (4,500 $), which is only about twice the average French income. No wonder he raised taxes at such an incredible level when he was elected in 2012. See numbers showing that in France, people are more jalous of the wealthy than in other countries.
  • Equality : the distribution of wealth is much more equal (or less unequal) in France than in the US, whatever the way it is measured (income or assets, before or after taxes, 10% richest and poorest, Gini coefficient etc). It decreases or increases much slower than in the US : the country is much "less unequal" than the USA with a trend toward reducing unequality. To know more read a few hundred pages by Thomas Piketty or click here for a few numbers.

A BRIEF PASTIME ? Contrary to the banknotes, which are identical for each value, the Euro coins are minted with, on one face, a figure chosen by one of the Euro countries. For France, it is either a female sower (people with a sick sense of humor say it represents the State wasting money) or a tree. In France, about a third of the circulating coins were issued in another country : try to identify what's in your purse.


  • The image of wealth and the wealthy is extremely negative. For most French and for the French media :

    • The image of wealthy people is the "rentier" i.e. somebody who lives from the capital he inheritated. It is not the image of a successful entrepreneur.
    • You can be an entrepreneur but please remain small ! The image of entrepreneurs is good (60% positive) for small companies (less than, 250 employees) and bad for bigger and international companies (25% only) (Source : IPSOS April 2004)
    • The shareholder is a thief ! To the question " to whom does a company have duties " the answer was : to clients 78%, to employees 71%, to the State, the environment, etc.. (20 to 30%), to shareholders only 6% (same source)
  • The richest French people are Bernard Arnault (LVMH with more than $90 b.), Gerard Mulliez (Auchan, Decathlon, Leroy-Merlin, with > $40 b.), François Pinault (>$30 b.), Françoise Bettencourt-Meyer (L'Oreal, >$30 b.), Axel Dumas (Hermes), Alain and Gerard Wertheimer (Chanel), Serge Dassault (Dassault airplanes, $16 b.). Read more about the richest. (Source : Forbes and Capital)

  • The relationship of the French to money is somewhat like the relationship of Puritans to sex : they like it but they pretend not to and they do not like to talk about it.This attitude is probably linked to the Catholic roots of the French culture : for Protestants or Jews, poverty is a scandal and wealth is a gift of God whereas for the Catholics, wealth is a scandal because is creates poverty.

  • In France, if you are well-to-do, you do not show it : it is considered very bad taste. A typical example being the traditional rich "bourgeois" from Lyon who drives in town an old dilapidated Peugeot to his garage in the suburb where he parks his sumptuous Mercedes.

  • A few illustrations :
    • One of the first decisions of the newly elected president Hollande in 2012 was to cap the salary of all the head of state-owned companies, and they are already much lower than their foreign counterparts' : for example the head of the national train companies make 250,000 Euros for the French SNCF (staff 150,000) and 2.5 million Euros for Deutsche Bahn (staff 240,000).
  • Saving and investing : the French save more than other countries (around 15% of their income) but what they do with their money is different. For financial investments, they prefer low-risk tax-free to sophisticated high-risk ones : their favorite financial investment is the Livret de Caisse d'Epargne-Livret A (more than 55 million accounts in 2017) whose interest rate is low and fixed by the State but which is guaranteed, always available and tax-free and they prefer real estate (62% of their total assets) to the stock market. Why this risk avoidance ? It is probably deeply rooted in history and rural France : in case of war or invasion, you need available cash immediately and the best capital is land and property (or gold coins...).
  • Checks and chip cards :
    • All French payment cards are Chip cards (since the end of the 1980s : see who invented them) and the smallest shops have the terminal to read them
    • Contrary to the US, almost all cards are debit cards and the French use credit cards very rarely ; card bills are generally paid monthly by automatic bank wiring and not by sending a check : read my opinion about credit cards ("Credit? No thank you").

    • The French use checks much more often than the other Europeans (29% vs. 11% in 2004) but this % is diminishin rapidly ;

  • Money scandals : while Anglo-Saxon countries have sex scandals, France enjoys permanent scandals about money, bribes to foreign dictators (ELF 1990s), " gifts " to politicians (Beregovoy, Dumas, 1990s), insider trading (EADS 2007), private use of public money (Chirac 1970-2007), etc... France being a "regal republic" (see the French state), anybody close to the power feels that he/she deserves to benefit from it (with the implicit approval of the King). I am not talking about bribes but about perks (apartments, cars, staff, services, all private expenses paid, etc…). Anybody from the President of France to the mayor of the smallest village behaves in a way that would horrify any of their Scandinavian colleagues. The situation is very similar in corporate life, where the CEO is the King. The only institution they fear is a newspaper, the Canard Enchainé .See my column about an illustration.
  • Money vs. leisure : contrary to what you would expect, a majority of people (53%) understand that shops are closed on Sunday and, if given the choice, would refuse to work on Sunday and make more money. More about it.
  • Gold : the French love gold and they are among the largest gold holders in the world : ingots for many, coins for most (there is always a grandpa or an uncle to present a little "Napoleon" gold coin to a kid). The reason : in case of war, you never know... See comparative figures.

  • Money is dirty : the government has decided that the best scientists would get a bonus (15,000 Euros during 4 years) as a reward for their achievements (Le Monde, October 25, 2009) ; a highly regarded physicist, Didier Chatenay (Directeur de Recherche, CNRS) refused it and declared : "As a matter of principle, I am against any kind of bonus...". Making 4,600 Euros a month ($80,000 per year), he says it is a "perfectly adequate" salary. A huge proportion of scientists and researchers share this view. Do you believe that ? When Thomas Edison visited the illustrious French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1889, he asked him how much money he had made from his discoveries. Pasteur answered : " a true scientist would consider he lowers himself by making money by his discoveries : a man of pure science would complicate his life and irk paralyzing his inventive faculties". Wow!

  • Money is boring! The French and money : why do the French dislike globalization so much ?
    Some of the French attitudes toward money are not compatible with globalization and contribute to explain their persistent resistance to act like other Western countries. In a column in the International NY Times (Sept. 23, 2014) "Truths of a French village", Roger Cohen gives two examples. He wanted to sell a house in France he had owned for 20 years and he summoned a real estate agent who told him "You must on no account sell this house". And the agent explains "This is a family home. You know it the moment you step in. You sense it in the walls. You breathe it in every room. You feel it in your bones. This is a house you must keep for your children". In other words, he prefers to lose a mandate than to participate in a transaction he disapproves. Self interest or professional obligation must not prevail on emotional values. Another example Cohen gives is when he is having a beer in a cafe with his sons and the bill comes to 14 Euros. He only has a 10 Euro bill and he offers to pay with a credit card. The waitress' answer is "Just give me that and dont't worry about the rest". In other words, life is already complicated : money matters should not make things more complicated. In a global world, keeping national values is more and more difficult !

  • Money and family : in France, you cannot desinherit your children : red about it and in Paris you can get a loan by leaving your (gold) watch at the counter at "ma tante".

  • Read how the attitude of the French toward money translates into the way Economics is taught in High School and see why the State subsidizes the press.
  • Read about tax-free saving accounts
  • More anecdotes about the French and money ; read Brunet.
  • More to come

USEFUL TIP...... If you pay for something and receive insults from the dealer, you must understand that for him/her, you pay for the product or the service only but you do not buy him/her, who remains free to express his/her feelings, including for your own good ! An example : you take lessons (skiing, piano, cooking, you name it) and you do something wrong. The instructor may treat you the way no American instructor would do and tell you that you are DISASTER (" Vous êtes nul(le) "), that you MUST do what he/she instructs you to do and NOT QUESTION it (" Faites ce que je vous dis "), etc... If you say : " but I paid you money, don't bawl me out ", the answer is likely to be : "You paid me to teach you something : that's what I'm doing". Read more on education in France.

    • The American philanthropy represents 373,25 billion $ and 90% of Americans actually give and the French philanthropy represents 7,5 billion $ and 10% of the French give (source : Zunz). The reason: most French people think that the State would do it better and they pay heavy taxes for it. Another example : in 2019, less than one day after the terrible fire of Notre-Dame cathedral, the richest man of France (Bernard Arnault) gave 200 million € to restore it and one of his peers (François Pinault) gave 100 million €. Nobody thanked them and they were widely criticized (for being rich...).
    • (former) President Sarkozy and money : it is interesting to note that a large majority of the French were not shocked to see the new president divorce his wife and having an affair with glamorous Carla Bruni but a majority was shocked to see him celebrating his election on a yacht belonging to billionaire Vincent Bolloré. It is clear that Sarkozy wanted the French to change their attitude regarding money and their view on people who became rich, but he did not succeed....
    • One of the main messages of Sarkozy when he was campaigning for president in 2007 was "It's cool to make money" : it was largely considered new and vulgar
    • The French give much less to charities than Americans : this is largely explained by the very high level of taxes (you expect that the State will finance everything needed...)
    • More to come...
  • Why ? Most authors explain this by the influence of Catholicism, particularly after the Catholic reaction during the War of Religion in the 16th century (see Weber or Peyrefitte). People admire old traditional wealth more than recent wealth and they despise "nouveaux riches" (new money).

A few typical French statements about money...

A few statements, definitely impossible to translate in English with the meaning they convey in French...

  • "Je n'aime pas l'argent, mais ..." (not that I like money but ...) : somebody who wants to say that he/she is morally honorable!
  • Money and (the feeling of) liberty :"Ce n'est pas parce que vous me payez que je suis votre esclave" (it is not because you pay me that I am your slave) : if you complain about the service in a shop by someone who wants to make clear you don't buy him/her when you buy his/her products !
  • A quote from the (then newly appointed) Socialist Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filipetti, gives a good illustration of the French attitude toward money. The daughter of an Italian miner in the former mining region of Lorraine, when she learned that the De Wendel family (the French equivalent of the Carnegie family, they made Lorraine a steel region) had given 1.5 million Euros to support the new Pompidou Museum of modern art in Metz, she said "I am against that, after all the bad things they did to my region". She does not want any money from the dirty capitalists! (May 2012)
  • A literary quote : from Balzac : "Derriere chaque grande fortune, il y a un grand crime" ("Behind every big fortune, is a big crime")
  • A few political quotes from De Gaulle : "Mon seul adversaire, celui de la France, n'a aucunement cesse d'etre l'argent"("My only enemy, the enemy of France, has never been anyrthing other than money") , from Francois Hollande in 2012 : "Mon seul adversaire n'a pas de visage, c'est la finance"("My only enemy has no visage, it's finance"), etc.
  • More to come...

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? The Franc, which disappeared forever on February 17, 2002 was created in 1360 by King Jean II "le Bon" ; this name means : the Valiant, and it is an absurd name for a king who was a notorious idiot, lost the battle of Poitiers and spent three years in London, a prisoner of the English. The Franc ("franc" means : free) helped free him for a huge ransom.

Money for expats

  • American citizens are subject to FATCA (read more)
  • (section to be developped)

Money and politics

  • Do you know that, in France, the Communist party (among others) is financed by taxpayer's money ? In France the political parties are largely subsidized by the State (around 40% of their expenses : see detailed figures) according to a very complicated rule taking into account the number of votes and the number of elected officials in the various elections (having members elected is the only condition to get a check from the State) ;in 2012, each party receives approximatelyt 1.60 Euros per voter.

  • a special body (Commission Nationale des Comptes de Campagne et des Financements Politiques) is in charge of verifying and certifying the accounts : it can (and does) fine parties and can (and does) declare ineligible an uncompliant politician

  • in addition to that : there is a 66% tax break on dues and donations by private individuals (donations by corporations are not allowed)

  • and : in national and European elections,TV channels must run (for free) political ads (in proportion to the previous votes)

  • people elected to an office (from mayor to member of the parliament) give to their party a part or even most (for the Communist Party) of their salary

  • much less money : in 2008, the total budget of the 12 main national parties was approx. 171m Euros ($250m), 19% less than in 2007, which was a year of national elections ; the French spend much less money than the US on political campaigns ; for example in presidential campaigns : in 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trum spent around $1.5 b. each, in 2017, in France, E.Macron spent $19 m. (yes : billion in the US vs. million in France !).
  • see some of the strangest anti-rich ideas of the 2012 political campaign

  • more about politics

DID YOU KNOW THAT …? To illustrate the (strange) relationship of the French to money, read that quote (1971) about money, from former President François Mitterrand : "money which corrupts, which bribes, which crushes, which kills, which ruins and which rots even to the very conscience of the man". He enjoyed money like anybody else and had many very wealthy friends but did not want his compatriots to know it.

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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

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