French specificities
In this page, I try to gather what exists in France and not in the US : specific institutions, traditions, etc... (in another pagne, I try to do the same regarding some American specificities that stump the French!)
France has it.... (institutions and legal)   Specificities in French laws
DID YOU KNOW THAT....? In France, a city hall must display a representation of the French Republic, whose symbol is a woman called "Marianne". Since the French Revolution Marianne wears a Phrygian cap (a symbol of Liberty, like in the American Revolution) and is often topless (because she feeds the people). The mayor can choose a Marianne among a few recommended models. Some of them give a very serious image of the Republic, others a sexier one.....
(Above : Brigitte Bardot, as a symbol of the French Republic)
  • Viager : do you know what the "viager" is ? Americans do not use this particular way to buy a house but it is common in France. You buy a house for a life annuity and you can use it only when the seller dies. The buyer generally pays a flat sum (the "bouquet") representing 10 to 20% of the value of the property (but it can also be 0%) and an annuity based on the life expectancy of the seller. A "viager"sale can be on "one head" or "two heads" for a couple of sellers (in this case, you can use your property only when the second "head" dies...).This contract is rather common for people with no heirs (or people who do not like their children....). It is a contract which leads you to quite immoral thoughts : you feel bad when your financial partner looks good ! In French families everybody has a story about "viager" with the seller dying one week after the signing or, on the contrary, twenty years above his/her life expectancy. The funniest story is the story of Jeanne Calment , the oldest Frenchperson, who died at age 122, several decades after her buyer, whose children and grandchildren had to pay her the annuity.... "My Old Lady", staring Maggie Smith, is a very funny movie about an American discovering a viager in Paris (Israel Horowitz, 2015).

  • Do you know what an "intermittent du spectacle" is ? This French concept is unique in the world. It is a system which makes it possible for people who work for the entertainment industry and who, by definition, work intermittently, to be protected against unemployment. It applies to both technicians (electricians, etc…) and artists (comedians, dancers, musicians, decorators, …), in the whole field of entertainment (cinema, theater, television, circus, …). Under the condition of having worked more than approx. 500 hours in the past 10 months, they are entitled to a daily allocation which gives them a salary and the benefit of the national health program and a pension. Created in 1936 (under the government of Front Populaire) and extended in 1969, this very advantageous program is of course extremely costly for the taxpayer but it was created to help and support artistic creation in France. Artists and workers in the entertainment industry are very attached to it : in 2003 when the government tried to reduce the deficit, they went on strike all over the country and almost all the summer programs (concerts, theater,…) had to be canceled. In 2012, they represented 0,8% of salaried employees, 3,4% of beneficiaies of unemployment benefit and 5,9% of total expenses of the whole unemployment program. There were125,000 "intermittents" in 2003 and the deficit of this program was already more than 800 million Euros in 2002. (Source : Centre d'Etudes de l'Emploi, Mars 2007). More about French movies.

  • Lunch vouchers. Food and social benefits are equally important to the French. In France, employers must, by law, offer a solution to their employees for their lunch. It can be a kitchen on the premises, a cafeteria or access to a cafeteria. It can also be a "ticket restaurant" : a voucher you can use for payment in any restaurant, bistrot or sandwich shop. In 2009, more than 460 million were given to employees, who pay only 40 to 50% of the face value (maximum 5,21 Euros in 2010).

  • The "Livret de Caisse d'Epargne" or "Livret A" is the preferred saving account of the French : 9 out of 10 have one. It is the kind of gift you present to your new-born grand-child. It is a very attractive form of saving : totally tax free, immediately available. Today's rate is 2,25% and the government changes it every 6 month according to the inflation rate. The maximum amount you can deposit is around 15.000 Euros.

  • "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" or M.O.F. ("Best French Worker") is a title that can be used only by those who have passed very competitive tests of professional qualification granted by professional organizations under the supervision of the State. It can be seen by the collar of the shirt which is striped blue, white and red, like the flag. It covers the whole range of manual skills. All the good chefs are M.O.F. but also bakers, seamstresses, plumbers, you name it. It is a very prestigious distinctions. Read about the made-in-France products.

  • More to come......

USEFUL TIPS . . . Think twice before you consider creating "a nice breeze"! For most of the French, creating a breeze (a "courant d'air") in a house is very dangerous for health and must be avoided at any cost. Where does this obsession come from ? Probably from the poor health conditions in most 19th century buildings and the terrible toll took by TB at that time.

Other French specificities include organizations which are rare or unknown in other countries :

DID YOU KNOW THAT …. ?  Who owns cathedrals and churches in France : the Vatican ? Communities of believers ? None of them : the State owns the cathedrals and local authorities (i.e. cities) own churches. Nobody else except for a few exceptions (churches built after 1905, foreign churches). Sometimes, a major historical church is owned by a small village which can hardly maintain it.  This is the result of the fundamental law of 1905 on “laïcité” (secularism) which nationalized all existing churches.


Are the French "normal" ?

In 2012, the newly elected president François Hollande said he would be a "normal" president (as opposed to his hyper-active predecessor). But can the French be normal ? The (excellent) French weekly magazine Courrier International found in the international press 33 reasons to challenge the idea of the French being capable of being "normal" ! (C.I. Special Issue Nov.-Dec.2012 Jan.2013). Over the years, I have tried to address most of them in this site. Among them :



France has, in its laws, many specificities which may seem extremely surprising to Americans. Among them :

  • Squatters are protected by the law ! If squatters break your door and enter your house, you must report it to the police within 48 hours. After that, you must go to court and place a claim to get back your property. DO NOT break into your own house : you would be prosecuted by the squatters and they would win their case. Remember that, anyway, no one (rentor who paid or did not pay his rent, squatter) can be expelled between October and April. All that and many other provisions are part of a legal system to protect the homeless and the illegal immigrants.
  • The principle of precaution ("principe de précaution") was explicitly included in the French Constitution in 2005 (the only country in the world!). Under this principle Edison and Ford would have acted unconstitutionally and the Academy of Medicine would have forbidden Pasteur to discover and implement vaccination. France is the only European country (with Bulgaria) which forbids by law any exploration of shale gas... (as well as GMO, etc). Read more about it (and about another strange French concept, the "Droit de Retrait").

  • The French legal concept of "non assistance a personne en danger" (i.e. "not helping an endangered person") does not seem to exist in the American legal system. It means that if you see a person in a dangerous situation (wounded, or attacked by someone, or in any situation of danger for his/her health or life), you MUST do something (help or call for help). If you don't, you are liable and you can be taken to court on this ground. In the world, France is the only country with Germany which has such a law. Why ? It was a Nazi law and it was transferred into French laws by the collaborationist government of Vichy.

  • In France (and in fourty other countries of Roman Law), notaries have a legal monopoly for the legal validation of some of the most important contracts (real estate transactions, liquidation of estate, marriage contracts, etc). They are not lawyers (they cannot advertise and their fee is fixed by the law) and they collect all the taxes resulting from the transaction. Their number is limited by a numerus clausus.

  • In France, heirs are protected by law ! According to the number of children, they inherit a minimum of 50%, 66% or 75% of what's left by the loved one. It is called "part reservataire" and no will can stand against that. If the deceased gave too much of his/her money to charities or people before he/she passed away, the heirs can go to court and ask it to re-estimate (over a period of 10 years) what should be their share ! The French are extremely surprised when they learn that Americans can legally desinherit one child (or all their children). This is one of the most typical examples of the difference between the two legal systems. See an event which shocked the French with the will of Johnny Hallyday in 2018.

  • "Garde à vue" : there is no habeas corpus in France and police can keep you, without any request by a judge, for 24 hours, extendable to 48 (or 96 hours in case of suspicion of terrorism). It is called "garde a vue" (literally "kept under sight"). It can happen to minors and people are often kept is very shameful conditions in filthy places, with little sleep, no phone, little food, etc… It happened to more than 900,000 people last year and France is the only country in Europe (with Belgium) with such a system. France does not satisfy European rules regarding human rights and is constantly criticized by the European Court about "garde à vue". Only since recently, you can call a lawyer (but only after the first hour) and he/she is not allowed to witness the interrogation. Police do not have to remind you of your rights. The situation becomes "normal" and you benefit from the same legal protection as in any other civilized country only after the "garde à vue". (In July 2010, the "Conseil Constitutionnel", following the European Supreme Court ordered the French government to improve the situation). More about French police.

  • No data on race, ethnicity and religion. By law, it is forbidden to collect any data that would introduce distinctions among citizens presumed to be equal and equally French. Therefore, there is no official figure about anything related to race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Such statistics would be discriminatory and lead to divisions in society. Courts and the CNIL are very vigilant about this constitutional rule and for instance in certain matters it is mandatory, in a survey, to ask questions which require a "subjective" answer rather than "factual". For example "Are you Black?" is forbidden and the question must be "How would you describe the color of your skin?". This is why figures which would be a useful basis to discuss the current issues on Islam like "How many Muslims in France?" do not exist and estimates vary between 5 and 8 million. Collecting such data has raised constant controversies and it will take a while, if ever, to have reliable figures on such sensitive issues.

  • World champion of social expenses! A country that loves public social expenses !
    France has the highest level of public expenses in the world (57% of GNP). Out of 1000 € of public expenses (by state, local authorities or public mandatory services) 575 € are for social transfers (the famous "cushion"), public pensions and health, then 143 € are for infrastructure and transfers to corporations, 96 € for education (from kindergarten to universities), 66 € for administration expenses (mostly salaries), 60 € for defense, security, justice, 37 € for the interest on public debt and 23 € for R & D. (Source : Ministere des Finances 2019).


Other examples include :

    • Prosecuteors ("le parquet") are appointed by the State and report to the Minister of Justice

    • In France, you can demonstrate in the streets against a law which has just been duly voted and demand its cancellation ! Examples : in 2005, the government voted a law to create a new labor contract to make recruitment easier for young applicants to a first job (the contract CPE "First Job Law") : after several weeks of strikes and demonstrations, President Chirac, the same day, promulgated the law and issued a decree voiding it ! In other words, the people marching in the street can cancel the vote of its representatives. Another example : in 2016, months of demonstations against a new Labor Law. Isn't that a strange democracy ? One of the most important (for them) demands of the Yellow Vests in 2018-2019 was the Referendum d'Initiative Citoyenne (RIC) which would make relatively easy for citizens to organize a referendum to 1/ abolish an existing law or 2/ remove for his/her seat an elected official.

    • To refuse to testify to avoid incriminating oneself (Fifth Amendment) does not exist in France (and in other countries of Roman Law).

    • more to come...

DID YOU KNOW THAT ? In France, you must follow labor rules, even if you're dead. When you die, your cleaning lady loses her job. Unfair. This is what your heirs must do, according to the Code du Travail : it is considered a dismissal and you must follow the general rule. 1/ An "entretien préliminaire" i.e. an interview in which your heirs (or yourself, if you are a ghost) announce the person that she will be dismissed, 2/ they (or your ghost) pay her two months of salary as "préavis" i.e. notice, 3/ then they pay an "indemnité de licenciement" i.e. dismissal indemnity of 1/2 months of salary per year of activity with you when you were alive, 4/ finally they pay to the Health and Retirement administration the usual tax on salary, i.e. around 40% of §2 and §3 (see taxes on salary in France). But being dead, you don't have to worry about all that. Do you have anything like that in the US ?

Other specificities.... (culture and values)

  • Pétanque : a ball game with 2 heavy iron balls (the size of tennis balls) each and a small wooden ball (the "cochonnet" i.e. piglet) ; the game is to put your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet ; you can "pointer" (roll the ball) or "tirer" (throw the ball) ; you can play on any surface, smooth or not ; the fun is to argue about the distance, measure it and find different values etc... A typical Southern game played by everybody in the country.

  • Freud (Sigmund) : the French have adopted psychoanalysis with enthusiasm and, today, France is probably the last country where, for instance, autism is largely considered a neurosis and ABA therapy a passing fashion. Why ? Probably because the French love theoretical systems and complex concepts, more than things that actually work. Freudian guru Jacques Lacan was a national hero (there was a line in the street to attend his weekly course at the Sorbonne) and the Société Psychanalytique de Paris is about as open to criticism as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Teheran. Read more.

  • Privacy and computers : the Commission Nationale Informatique et Liberté (CNIL) is an independent body that ensures the protection of privacy when threatened by information systems. Two examples :
    • any computer file created by a company, an institution or an administrative body, containing personal data, whatever it may be (address, age, gender or anything personal) MUST be declared to CNIL, which can veto it ; exceptions are strictly monitored (national security, crime etc.)
    • any cooperation between a public body (such as NSA in the US) and a private company (such as Google) would be strictly forbidden by CNIL which would take them both to court and win.
    More about privacy as a key French value..

  • Crimes of passion : the French are more indulgent than many other culture for crimes inspired by love and several famous criminal cases illustrate it. Read about the Caillaux affair.

  • Miscillaneous examples : on a very popular State-owned radio channel, every Sunday evening since 1955, "Le masque et la plume" is a two-hour program in which six or seven well-known movie and book critics discuss recent books or movies

  • More to come......


More on the other pages of this site....


For the French, vacations are more than a period of rest : they are an important part of their culture.

  • In France, the entire year revolves around vacations. A simple question : what is the beginning of the year ? If you answer : January 1st, you're not French! For them, it's September 1st ("la rentrée") and during the whole month of September everyone talks mostly about the end of vacation and the year to come ("will it be better or worse?", "what will mark this new year", "where did famous people spend their vacations?" etc). It is the favorite topic of everyone : people in the street, university professors, concierges, journalists, politicians, experts, you name it.

  • Vacations are structured by school vacations, even for people who don't have kids. They represent up to two weeks every six weeks : around November 1st ("vacances de la Toussaint"), for Christmas ("vacances de Noel"), in February ("vacances d'hiver"), for Easter ("vacances de Pâques"), in May ("vacances de Printemps") and of course in Summer for two and a half months. In any French company or organization, everytime someone says "When shall we have our next meeting ?" the whole debate is about "not during the school vacations". It makes it very complicated because since there are 3 national zones for school vacations with dates which can vary by 1 or 2 weeks between them, there is always an idiot who says "but Zone B will be on vacation" and everybody will understand that it is impossible to have the meeting this day. Conclusion : it is easy to fix the date of a meeting when there is no school vacation, nowhere in France i.e. in the following periods : September 15/October 15, November 15/December 15, January 15/January 31, a few days (unpredictable) in March or April (depending on the date of Easter), forget about May (too many bridges) and June (the month of exams). You'll understand, that in France you can work normally a total of 3 to 4 months per year : in Fall, a little bit in Winter, and that's all….

  • Vacations provide the media with a constant flow of subjects : a good week before each of the above-mentioned periods and every day in July and August, national TV news and all newspapers and magazines lead with vacations (traffic conditions, interviews with vacationers, weather in major vacations areas, vacation places of the famous, etc…)

  • Vacations are the favorite French economic indicator : nowhere else in the world does the institute of statistics regularly publish the proportion of people who left for vacation ; if the proportion of people who leave for Summer or take skiing vacations (including 80-year olds, newborn babies and inmates) decreases by 0,5%, it is more important than any other economic figure (unemployment rate, inflation, etc).

  • Vacations are a major political issue : everyone knows that the first law on two-week paid vacations was paseed by the governement of the Front Populaire in 1936. For most of the French, "vacations" equals "a gift from the Left".

  • Many people have more vacations than they can enjoy (or afford) : with the 35-hour work week, unless you get paid over-time, you get up to 18 additional (paid) days of vacations, on top of the 5 (minimum) weeks of paid vacations. Therefore, a classical comment onTV is "with the crisis it's no fun to be on vacation when we don't have enough money to spend". More about vacations.

  • Vacation homes (in French : "residences secondaires") : nearly 3 million French own a vacation home. This is one the highest (if not the highest) rate in the world (12 times the German's). Sociologists explain it by the strength of rural roots in the French psyche.

  • More to come....
See related pages : American specificities, French attitudes, intercultural differences, French society, French taboos, etc.

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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
  • "French Toast - Heureuse comme une Américaine en France", Ramsay, Paris 2005

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