Idées reçues

If you spend any time in France, chances are you will find that many French people think the same way on certain subjects. As usual, I beg to differ.

Here in France, like most parts of the world, certain ‘received ideas’ tend to be taken as common sense. This goes beyond commonly held beliefs about history and science —  that Molière died on stage while playing in ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’ (in fact he died at home in his own bed after a performance) or the one about catching cold from the cold (so deeply anchored in the French psyche that no scientific proof to the contrary will be taken seriously) — to a way of seeing the world that is uniquely French.

I was surprised to find an English Wikipedia listing for the French expression idées recues. It seems to have been immortalized from the satirical dictionary of such notions written in the last century by Gustave Flaubert. Here is his original list:

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I resist ‘group think’. I was born a contrarian and will probably go out arguing with the doctors and nurses (yep, it’s still morbid November, folks; see my last post).

Here are some commonly held beliefs that are, in my entirely un-humble opinion, a load of old…(insert preferred word):

The French are undisciplined

This one has it that, due to some innate quality of nature itself, the French are resistant to things like lineups, rules of the road or common acts of civility like picking up trash. This national trait makes them, as a country, essentially ungovernable. While this is often the case, it has more to do with history and culture than something in their DNA.

Air conditioning is unhealthy

Just like you catch a cold from the cold, the fact of living and working in an air-conditioned space can make you physically ill. While it is true that air conditioning is poorly understood and badly integrated into French spaces and thus, you may get a crick in your neck from sitting next to the single vent delivering cold air into a room, the science and technology of cooling allows millions of people around the world to function far more optimally than they would in sweltering heat.

‘Bio’ is nothing more than big business

The average French consumer does not trust organic food. This widely held belief, recently expressed to me at a local fruit and veg store when I dared to ask when they planned to introduce ‘bio’ produce, has it that there is so much chemical contamination in the soil, air and water anyway, that any effort to grow organic food is a waste of time. In fact, this one borders the conspiracy theory in suggesting that it is all a scheme to make people pay more. Several shoppers in the line-up nodded in agreement. I left in frustration, unable to find words in the face of such confirmation bias.

The government is corrupt and in bed with big business

It doesn’t really matter which political party has the majority. Any elected official has his or her own agenda and it generally serves the rich rather than the common man. From there it is a small leap to assume that all governments are corrupt, that there are billions hidden in their coffers while we, the working people, are literally taxed to death. While there may be some truth in this, to think that virtually no one in public life sincerely wants to improve conditions for the people who elected them goes against my nature. Call me naïve. Many have. I can’t help but believe that there are good people in government (and business for that matter).

Sandwiches make you fat/are unhealthy

The idea of eating a sandwich instead of sitting down for a hot meal is extremely unpalatable to the French. I’ve heard colleagues complain that they are not well for the simple reason that they have been forced to eat a sandwich at lunchtime. Not because they ate it at their desk, or were too busy to take a break, but by the nature of the food itself. It seems to me that not all sandwiches are the same; there are good ones and bad ones. Personally I find it healthier eat a freshly made sandwich with good quality ingredients than a piece of meat floating in a salty sauce.

It is dangerous to drive below the speed limit

While this may be true in fact, I take exception to the idea that is has to be this way, at least outside of motorways. The idea of slowing down at all is abhorrent to most French drivers, even for cyclists or pedestrians. The speed limit on secondary roads in France was lowered to 80 km last year but following the uproar of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement the government caved and decided to let the departments decide for themselves. The majority have put it back to 90 km, despite the fact that the measure seems to have led to a reduction in deaths from road accidents.

The list goes on but I’ll stop there. The fact is that there is a grain of truth in most idées reçues but that doesn’t make them laws of nature.

What commonly held ideas do you struggle with?


  1. phildange · November 21, 2019

    Dual creature .. You resist “group thinking”, which is for me an essential quality (even more admirable from someone bred in North America) and, as you say yourself, your “naive” whishful thinking about people in governments seems coming from the opposite direction of yourself .

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      Funnily enough, Phil, I do actually think of myself as a dual creature! Or one of contrasts in any case… But while I am cynical about many things, I cannot help but remain a fundamental optimist about human nature. So perhaps there is a North American (or at least a Canadian) lurking beneath my French passport.

  2. francetaste · November 21, 2019

    I can certainly think of examples of group think that I succumbed to and deeply regret now.
    The fear of cold and of circulating air isn’t limited to the French. I was astounded to be in public transport in Africa (the back of an enclosed Peugeot pickup with 28 people crammed inside) and passengers shutting the windows “to protect their ears from the wind.” I was thinking, what about our lungs and their need for air?
    As for lines, my previous doctor here took appointments but didn’t call patients by name. The next patient got up according to their order of arrival in the waiting room. Believe me, everybody knew exactly who was ahead of them and who was behind, and loud discussions, involving everybody as witnesses, would ensue when somebody tried to jump the line.

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      Yes, I’ve seen the orderly approach to going by turn in doctors’ offices too, and in small shops like the butcher’s. But at markets and other public places it can be a free-for-all. I am certainly glad I wasn’t in the back of that Peugeot, although it sounds like one for the memoir!

  3. Carolyn · November 21, 2019

    I’ve lost count of how many times, on arriving home in the evening, I heard the phrase “I’m starving, I didn’t have time for lunch today”. When I commented that hubby should have at least bought himself a sandwich, he always replied “I did, but that’s not proper food/lunch”.

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      This made me smile — I can just picture the Frenchman in question! If it’s not hot, it doesn’t seem to count… 😂

  4. Suzanne Levasseur · November 21, 2019

    Interesting post (as usual). I do agree that some French people would fit the “idées reçues” that you listed above but as with any other country, not everyone conform to these ideas we have of them. I do agree that the relationship of French with AC and cold is strange and as your climate will heat up French will have to develop a better understanding of AC.

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      You make a fair point — there are certainly many French people who do not share all (or any) of these ideas. But I think they are probably representative of a great majority. As for AC, it really has hugely improved as I discovered this summer. French attitudes haven’t caught up yet but I fear they will be obliged!

  5. paul · November 21, 2019

    Yes indeed ! “Group thinkers” are my enemies too.. During my lifetime i have belonged to a few political parties and found something or other that i cannot agree with.. I ended up leaving and being called “traitor” and had even worse insults thrown at me. I have discovered that I am not a loyal follower of hand me down ideas or “party policy ” . What upsets me most of all is that I made what i thought were friends whilst belonging o the party group but once i left i never heard or saw from them again. If you did not agree with their ideas you were no longer a human being. I always believed that friend was a friend regardless of their personal beliefs. That is unless they were completely off the rails 🙂

    • phildange · November 21, 2019

      Yeah, something is sad somewhere .

      • paul · November 22, 2019

        No. At least, not sad for me at all . I have a good life still married to the same woman for 35 years and also as fit and well as can be in the 70 years I have been around. However what i was trying to say its a long time and its also been a journey of self find that i was not a person that fitted into groups where total agreement was necessary as i tended to follow my own thoughts when i disagreed with the majority view.

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      Agree with Phil that it’s sad. Friends (real friends) should not fall out over differences in political views — nor should family. Yet so many do, especially in these polarizing times. As for groups, perhaps I should have said that I don’t generally do well with groups, period. I find the whole dynamic, where people say one thing to your face and another behind your back, exhausting. Also, I cannot tolerate people who try to dictate how I should react to a given situation — racism, gender bias appropriation, etc. There are just too many topics where ‘group think’ and the politically correct reign.

  6. margaret21 · November 21, 2019

    I nodded in wry agreement at many of your entries. Apart from one. ‘Bio’ was definitely worth queuing for. Our local market had a petit producteur whose veg. were entirely bio and the long queue for his produce went round the block. It was an opportunity to swap recipes and generally catch up with the local gossip. In their own gardens, our neighbours were happy to boast of their organic practises and swore by planting by the phases of the moon as well.Rural France? Southern France? Who knows. However, apparently everyone shared the well known belief that leaving off your cardie leads to a heavy cold.

    • MELewis · November 21, 2019

      I have seen long lineups at a few ‘bio’ market stalls, and even at some local producers, so there is definitely a market for organic and homegrown produce. And we are starting to see bigger organic produce sections even in the supermarkets, so perhaps times are changing even in France!

  7. Ally Bean · November 22, 2019

    I have to admit that I wonder about organic foods, too. For the reasons you mention. I’m not keen on sandwiches but I don’t think they make me ill. I just am not a fan of them, but eat them without complaint. Maybe I have some French DNA in me!

    • MELewis · November 23, 2019

      You must do! I think (as mentioned to chezperrier) a good choice is buying direct from small producers who use as few chemicals as possible but who don’t necessarily have the ‘bio’ label. As for sandwiches, I guess we’ve all become a bit paranoid about carbs but for the French it really is a deep-seated belief that it’s unhealthy to eat on the fly, ie without sitting down at table to a hot meal.

  8. chezperrier · November 22, 2019

    Fear that air conditioning will make you ill – that is my French husband 100%. He always claims to be sick after the air conditioning has been on in the car.

    As far as ‘bio’ food goes, my husband, Olivier, worked for a summer picking peaches and said that the amount of spray they use is incredible. That said, he’ll do anything to save a buck and still doesn’t usually buy organic fruit. I think that anyone who is interested in the subject of organic food should watch this French documentary. It has stuck in my mind for years: Nos enfants nous accuseront (Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution) It’s available to rent or to buy on YouTube:

    I’m happy to add that there is a now small ‘bio’ shop in Olivier’s village. His mother also said that much of the produce in the outdoor market is organic as the individuals who bring their fruits and veg to sell don’t use chemicals but they also don’t have official certification.

    • MELewis · November 23, 2019

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply — and the link to the doc, which I haven’t seen and will try to watch. Your belle-mère is right: many producers don’t want to go through the paperwork of bio because it’s a lot of admin but still practice ‘sustainable’ (agriculture raisonnée) farming. I buy many such foods from local producers and it feels like the best compromise.

  9. George Lewis · November 24, 2019

    Agree with most of your group think nonsense examples except driving speed. I feel it is dangerous to drive slower than the other vehicles regardless of the posted limit, especially on multi lane highways. Too often you see cars changing lanes recklessly to get around an inappropriately slow driver. The result is often an accident.

    • MELewis · November 28, 2019

      Agree slower vehicles result in accidents, but not because of the reasons you state. Drivers need to be wary of conditions around them and not assume that everyone will drive as fast as they are. Around here only tourists pass on the right; the European standard is drive on the right and only use the left lane to pass. Mostly it is respected.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s