Some common myths about France and how to debunk them

If you’ve been eagerly reading up on French traditions and culture before your long-awaited stay in a French city, hoping to catch a remote glimpse of what France is all about, you may have come across some dubious facts that needed double-checking.

Well, you’re in luck because the Gymglish team is here to help you get your facts straight before you set foot on Gallic soil.

In this article, we look at 4 of the most widespread legends about l’Hexagone and how to overcome them – and some of them may well startle your innocently French connaissances.

France is a smelly nation

Casually jump into any ligne de métro on peak time and you’ll regrettably be greeted by a powerful and strong and pungent body odor, questionable eau de toilette and late-night urine escapades. This is especially true in the summer, when the biological phenomenon of 50 sweaty bodies within inches of each other magically comes to life. Also, enjoying a fair amount of fragrant cheese, onions and garlic doesn’t help.

However, the French are far from being the stinkiest people on the planet. In fact, you may find that the French smell surprisingly good – after all, France is the land of Givenchy, Coco Chanel and Jean-Paul Gaultier is it not?

Where does the myth come from? This misconception dates back to the Second World War. At the time, plumbing wasn’t up to scratch and many French people couldn’t bathe often. They either had to share a bathroom with their neighbors or use public showers. Since then, the sanitary situation in France has improved, but only the cliché remains.

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The French are rude and arrogant – and that goes for waiters, too

One of the most alleged beliefs about the French is that they display (extreme) rudeness, especially to strangers. There are some elements of truth in this statement – we’ve all encountered a surprisingly brusque French person in the street (pardon, je suis pressé) or worse still, an ill-mannered serveur just waiting to get rid of you even though you’ve seemingly done nothing wrong to rattle his cage (l’addition, c’est au comptoir).

While it is common in British or American culture to approach a stranger on the street as if they were a friend, this is not so much the case in France. The French tend to keep to themselves and don’t like to be disturbed by strangers – let alone English-speaking tourists – on their way to work. However, by learning some basic French phrases, mastering the art of the tutoiement and vouvoiement and showing respect for French culture, your conversation partner will respond in kind and you’ll be greeted with much more hospitality.

Where does the myth come from? Although France is notoriously impolite in international tourist surveys, this stereotype boils down to customs and cultural misunderstandings. You’ll find unwelcoming individuals in most big cities – not just in Paris, but also in London, New York, and even Tokyo. In some smaller, more remote French cities, however, locals are often perceived as being welcoming and helpful. 

The French love going on strike (and boasting about it)

On fait grève aujourd’hui !”. Megaphones are blaring and cost-effective wooden placards are held aloft: just another Tuesday afternoon on the streets of Caen, Toulouse or Nancy. Unlike in most European countries where negotiations take place before strikes, in France strikes precede any form of talks. They usually cause major disruption to public transport and road traffic and are widely reported in the local and sometimes international press.

There is some truth in this old cliché. France has the highest number of trade unions and has seen more strikes than any other developed European country, such as Germany or the UK. And according to the state-owned railroad system SNCF, France has had a rail strike every year for 72 years since 1947.

But despite this stereotype of a unionized nation, France has one of the lowest levels of trade union membership density among OECD countries. Today, the number of strikes has fallen significantly since the 1970s, and overall participation remains low.

Where does the myth come from? The myth of France as a land of striking is (like many stereotypes) simply a matter of history. The French won the right to strike 20 years before they won the right to unionize, creating a culture of power struggles and tensions in the workplace. The French are also strongly attached to the legacy of the student strikes of May 1968, which marked the biggest social uprising in modern French history. 

The French are cowards

Outside their home turf, French soldiers are often dismissed as being poor in armed combat, lazy, and likely to trade in their rifles for a glass of rosé in the sunshine, and surrender.

This cliché is of course completely false. Interestingly enough, France has fought 168 wars, won 109 and lost 49. The French army is the 6th most powerful army in the world and now has one of the world’s highest military budgets.

Where does the myth come from? Two major events cemented France’s reputation as a coward. During WWII, the French army quickly surrendered to the Nazis after just 46 days, unprepared and vastly outnumbered. A few decades later, in 2002, the country refused to support the US and join allied forces during the Iraq war. This refusal earned the French some colorful nicknames, such as the Simpson’s “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. 

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