Do French People Really Wear Berets? French Clichés Investigated

Do French People Really Wear Berets? French Clichés Investigated

Are French people all eating snails in their striped shirts while smoking? Well…oui and non. Every country has its stereotypes and France probably has more than its fair share. Let’s examine some of the most common clichés about French people.

It’s true that “ooh la la” is interjected into daily conversations and on TV regularly in France. But not in the way you may think!

“Ooh la la” isn’t used by French people to express desire or sexiness the way Americans say it. In general, it is interjected when they are shocked or impressed.

For example: “I went to the store and, ooh la la, the line was an hour long!” Or when an amazing soccer goal is made, you’ll hear “ooh la la!” in place of how Americans would say “wow” or “whoa!”

Striped shirts are an everyday item of clothing here. Everyone from senior citizens to babies wear the classic marinière. Stripes became the uniform of the French Navy in the 1850s, but were popularized to the masses when stars like Brigitte Bardot began wearing them as leisurewear. Want to own the most authentic version? Buy the Saint James classic Breton.

Berets are less common, but seem to be more popular than usual this fashion season thanks to Dior and its leather version. Berets are worn by locals and tourists alike here in Paris, so no one immediately assumes you are a tourist if you’re wearing one.

I’m not French, but I own both of these items and wear them unironically around Paris. Not at the same time, though I have seen actual French people doing just that, probably unaware they are a walking cliché.

First off, they don’t know who Pepé Le Pew is. I’ve shown many French guys a video of Pepé Le Pew and tried to explain this American cliché of a Frenchman. Unsurprisingly, they don’t see the humor in being portrayed as a smelly skunk with a bad French accent going around groping all day.

As far as the Casanova rumors– Frenchmen may have a slightly more romantic streak than their American counterparts, and tend to get serious about relationships faster too. But despite Paris’s well deserved reputation for being a romantic city, everyone isn’t making out on the street all day.

Considering France produces some of the world’s finest perfumes, cosmetics and soaps it seems a bit counter-intuitive that they would stink. I mean, the Paris metro in summer is not the freshest smelling place, but it is no worse than the subway in NYC.

Perhaps this rumor continues to live because European Union regulations don’t allow the some of the same chemicals in their products we find in America. But this cliché (also perpetuated by Pepé Le Pew) is not true. I can personally confirm that French hygiene, in general, is great.

English is the most spoken second language in France, as it is in most of Europe. But you will find a generational and geographical divide, so the answer very much depends where you are in France.

The tourism industry in France operates largely in English, therefore you will find more speakers in cities such as Paris and Bordeaux than in the countryside. Younger people are also more likely to speak English than their parents.

France is no where near the 80-90% English speaking rates found in Scandinavian countries, but the World Economic Forum says France has a “moderate” English proficiency level compared with the rest of the globe.

Yes snails are eaten, but snails are in no way the chicken of France. I would guess more snails are eaten by tourists in Paris than by French people.

Snails (escargot) are most commonly on the menu in the Burgundy region of France, where the best originate. You can find snails in the grocery store, as well as on some brasserie menus, but I’ve never personally seen a French person order snails unless they are in the company of a tourist. Of course there are French people who enjoy a plate of snails, but it isn’t an everyday dish.

As for frogs– I’ve never eaten frogs legs in France, and I don’t know any French people who profess to love eating frog. As with many French foods, frogs are more common in a specific region (Dombes) than anywhere else. France has even outlawed commercial frog hunting since the 1980s, so that frog leg you’re eating in Paris most likely came from Indonesia. Despite the nickname, France is not the land of frogs.

Smoking rates in France have actually plummeted almost 60% since the 1960s, and today fewer than one-in-three Frenchies smokes regularly. This is quite a bit higher than U.S. rates (around 15%), but it is about average for the European Union.

While you can’t smoke inside restaurants or bars anymore in France, you will find French people lighting up on cafe terraces, in the street or at a park bench. So perhaps the public aspect of smoking in France is why this cliche persists.

The French are more private than Americans and don’t generally strike up conversations with strangers. It is a different culture, and some tourists take the lack of overt friendliness as a sign of rudeness, though most French people don’t mean it that way.

Also, remember Paris isn’t Disneyland– people are living their real lives and don’t always have time or patience for the constant stream of tourists. I had this same feeling living in NYC periodically — sometimes you are having a rough day and just can’t give directions to Times Square one more time.

As far as waiters, French servers don’t work for tips, so it is true they may not all be as overly friendly and attentive as you’re used to in the States. However, waiters at high-end restaurants take their jobs very seriously and you will find the service to be world class.

Have you run into any French cliches that you found to be true or false? Leave a comment and share!

*P.S. Thanks to my friend Gabriella for suggesting this post topic <3

14 thoughts on “Do French People Really Wear Berets? French Clichés Investigated”

  • Before going to Paris, I had heard the stereotype of the “rude French.” However, that was far from the truth. The rudest people we encountered were tourists, not French. Most of the people were quite kind to us; of course, we had researched about customs and knew how to act, but it’s not that hard. When we were eating at Le Comptoir du Relais(really good), we saw a man interrupt his own family dinner to help some American tourists order. As for the servers, I prefer the French service. They don’t hover, and they’re efficient. The only poor service we had was at Angelina’s, which was crammed full of people.

  • I could have used all of this information on my trip to Paris. Now I have to go back and buy my beret. See you in May 😉

  • Excellent information packaged in a nice way. I live on a French Caribbean island and can confirm the writer’s view. The only negative experience is the expectation of some French people that you should be able to speak French perfectly, if you try at all.

  • Hi, Charlianne, I am French and live in France and have lived in France for the last 77 years except for a 4 year educational trip to the US. I agree with the part on béret and frog legs and snails. But on striped tee-shirts I never see them on the streets or in daily life. On summer holidays yes frequently. But not at the office or on the streets.
    In my opinion you can recognize French people in French or foreign countries by the way they dress (for example as one of my American sociologist friends remarked “men wear belts on their trousers”), the way they breathe (same American friend remarked that Americans keep their mouth half open whereas French people move around with their mouth shut). Also French people abroad are very arrogant.

  • Nice presentation of Parisien… I agree that they are clean people and smell well, but even being great producers of perfumes, I have noticed that most of them do not use perfume!!! much less than in other countries!

  • Occasional French people may wear occasional bérets. But when you see a whole family walking around together in bérets, NO WAY ! You know they have to be tourists. From Bethany, an American in Paris

  • They are much more formal than most other races esp. re. handshaking and kissing (2,3 or even 4 times), and their letters….!

  • I own about 4 stripey tops and I also have two berets. I never wear them together, (a sartorial fail) and I have hardly ever seen a anyone on France wearing the two together. In fact the beret is seen as an item of regional clothing, and it’s usually worn by old gaffers, as I found for myself when I was trying to put up my tent, one windy day in France. I was wearing a beret, as it happened. A passing scout troop took pity on the old geezer and put my tent up for me.

    • Hahaha yes, this is true. I have only seen a French person wearing both at the same time once (tourists do it of course).

  • D’accord ! Another cliché I have been asked about (j´habite en Paris) is if the streets are truly as disgusting as people have heard. Bien sûr, oui et non. Yes, sometimes I see dog owners failing in their duties, and humans (exclusively men so far) who can’t seem to bother to find a bathroom, but the streets get cleaned *every day* ! I have never seen a US street get cleaned that often, and even weekly is surprising. I have never lived in Chicago or NY but I have lived in Dallas-Fort Worth and I say Parisian streets are no worse than US streets, and most of the time are much better, depending on the weather and district. But don’t swim in the Seine.

    For another anecdote of French hospitality, our landlady actually called the electricity company to help us set up our electricity account since we could not yet speak French at the time. Further, it is rare for me to even see French angry at each other, much less at me. If I start with “Bonjour” and am not rude I have never gotten a rude response. If I try to speak French, even badly, I am always met with people going out of their way to help.

    • Thanks for the comment Cliff — compared to NYC I find Paris to be very clean, but many Parisians don’t think it is at all and this continues to be a big debate here!

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