‘Impossible n’est pas français’

The first time I heard this statement, I took it for corporate speak. I was working in a big company that had set what seemed like an impossible objective to be achieved in a ridiculously short period of time.

“Pas possible,” I may have scoffed. ‘Pas possible’ being one of those easy expressions that non-native speakers pick up and use like gold. They’re so easy, and most of the time, they work. Not this time. My boss turned to me and said, a steely look in her eye: “Impossible n’est pas français.”

This improbable statement turned out to be true. The organization rallied, pulled out all the stops and met the impossible deadline. Proving that the French are capable of pulling off stunts that others might discount as not being feasible.

It struck me as a contradiction. Given how long things normally take in this country, the delays due to strikes and disagreements among various teams and members of personnel, how could we have achieved so much, so quickly? I guess it comes down to a certain military mentality that takes over in times of crisis. I’ve also seen it in action at large events of incredible scale that the French are so good at pulling off. Operationally, the French are capable of amazing feats.

That is why when Macron announced that our beloved Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt within five years, I believe it can be done. Whether or not that happens will depend on whether the government is able to get everybody on side. If time is wasted arguing over the best approach (artisanal or industrial?), the funding (a huge uproar has already begun over the donations raised by private capital — why can’t a fraction of that money be found for social causes?), we may well miss the goal. But if everyone pulls together, it’s possible.

As for the proverb, it goes back to Napoléon Bonaparte, who wrote in 1808 to one of his generals that impossible was not a word he understood. So was born the expression ‘Impossible n’est pas français’. Popularized by Balzac, it became the title of books, films and this song by Sheila, in 1967

P.S. There is a mistake in the YouTuber’s title – it is ‘français’ the language, not ‘Français’ the people — even if many prefer to think the latter!


  1. phildange · April 19, 2019

    It is because we have a patented secret weapon, forever fathomless for Aliens, “le système D” .

    • MELewis · April 20, 2019

      Thanks for reminding me, Phil. ‘Le système D’ is worthy of a post in itself. I’m not sure I’ve fully worked it out yet though. On my way to being less alien but not quite there yet. 😂

  2. acflory · April 20, 2019

    -grin- I truly hope you, and Macron, are right!

  3. Dale · April 23, 2019

    Français avec un petit “f” s’applique à la langue et les gens. The French are not big on capitalization! 😉
    That said. Most interesting. I had not heard this phrase 😉

    • phildange · April 23, 2019

      Avec un “f” minuscule, français s’applique à la langue mais pas aux gens . You must write “J’ai rencontré un Français”, ” les Français aiment leurs vacances”, but each time it is an adjective you must use the initial “f”, f minuscule . ” Un avion français”, “la littérature française”, “les citoyens français”, “le peuple français” but la majorité des Français” . For people, when “Français” is a noun, use the F majuscule .Same for all nationalities .

      • MELewis · April 24, 2019

        Interesting, thanks Phil and Dale’s comment may provide the excuse for why I never understood this nuance of capitalization. Perhaps it is a difference in usage between French in France vs. Québec?

      • phildange · April 24, 2019

        Sorry, I can’t say but, given writing seems to follow official French rules even in Quebec i’d bet both countries do the same .

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