Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to complain about anything

If I’m asked to reel off a few (more) clichés about the French, I’ll have to come clean about their ability to complain about anything and anyone. But why?

It’s an inside joke among the French that the national sport isn’t football, cycling, or tennis – it’s complaining. Indeed, grumbling about anything from politics to delays in public transport seems to be one of the features that peppers French daily life.

So much so that various French presidents have over the years issued appeals to their fellow countrymen to stop complaining so much (although given that the president is usually towards the top of the list of things to complain about, that may not have been an entirely disinterested move).

Initially, I found this habit annoyaing until I realised it was the French way of making small talk. The British talk about the weather, the French complain. It doesn’t mean that they’re deeply unhappy, it’s more of a necessary social lubricant and an outlet for shared frustrations – a way of directing everyone’s anger towards a common cause.

Surveys regularly show the French as being the most dissatisfied with a range of topics and French presidents often get terrible approval ratings, but French people are likely to live long, healthy and happy lives – maybe it’s because they enjoy all the complaining? The other side to complaining is to do with expectations. The French have high expectations of their society and their government and why not?

As for what French people complain about, any topic seems to be fair game but it’s generally daily annoyances, such as taxes, politics, work, public transport.

Of course, there could be a deeper, more historical factor behind it – namely the French Revolution. The overthrow of monarchy is an example of an attitude which is rooted in the French mentality. Most French believe that:

If we don’t complain, things don’t change.

They definitely see complaining as a vital tool for social change. Indeed, organised complaining, or protesting, is both an inviolable principle and a feature of French society. For example, France has more strikes than any other developed European country and the numbers have only risen in recent years.

From the 1968 demonstrations to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movements, shouting grievances in the street is part of the French strategy for defending their rights and liberties.


When complaining moves up a gear. Photo: AFP

France is a wealthy country with lots of advantages so it’s reasonable to expect that its people will have a decent standard of living. French people expect this to happen and complain when it does not. Government moves that are seen as lowering the standard of living (such as the recent pension reforms) are greeted with complaints or the more formalised process of complaining – strikes.

While long-lasting strikes can certainly be annoying they a) give you something to complain about to your  neighbours and b) contribute to the generous social protections around employment, healthcare and pensions that many of us enjoy in France and why we continue to reside here..

70 thoughts on “Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to complain about anything

  1. This was very insightful, and as you have mentioned already, the attitude of the revolution seems to still be very present. Now this is arguable, but you have to respect that they rid their country of, wait for it — the mighty monarchy!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. That’s interesting Sheree, I guess every country has its different quirks! 😂 Here people complain about the weather mostly because we have such variable and unpredictable 🙄 weather! But it’s mostly fun and a conversation starter when people meet. I really enjoy these posts Sheree, hop you are having a fantastic day 😀 😺

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Very interesting! I think they are right, nothing changes through keeping quiet. I remember an incident from the early days of the EU or was it even before … in any case the French farmers were angry about the import of cheap tomatoes from Italy, Portugal, Holland and Belgium. They actually blocked the borders with tractors, so that nobody could get in or out. I was young then and very impressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think it is in the DNA. 😉 I’m of French Canadian heritage, so it’s crossed the Atlantic. My elders were big complainers. It took me years and much mental adjustment to get away from the complaining habit. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A fun read, although I’ve seen news of protests in France, I’ve never thought of the French as day-to-day complainers. It sounds like the French complain well though, in a way that gets you somewhere. I’m not sure we Brits are quite so effective!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. great article. i think i read somewhere years ago that french people are unlikely to voice their fears and will deny such if asked. ah it was when the chunnel opened! have you come across such a thing?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. here’s a bit more detail. when the channel tunnel opened a journalist went to people on this side and asked about their fears, there were loads, being crushed, gassed, trapped flooded, all sorts. Then the journalist went through and asked people near the tunnel in france what frightened them about it; nothing, everyone asked said they didnt have any worries at all. so grumbling yes, admitting fear possibly not 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So funny and true! My husband was born in Paris but grew up in Canada. When he started working with ex-pat French nationals, he couldn’t believe the level of complaining. As you say though, complaining and socializing seem to be part of the national psyche. To the outsider though, the complaints sometimes smarted. The French have social services and work benefits that far exceed the normal in the rest of the world. However I wouldn’t want to point that out 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Nice observations ! Now that I have been living in the US for so long (18 years) sometimes it also annoys me when I hear my fellow Frenchmen complaining about any and everything. But you are right that is French people’s smalltalk. Also maybe it’s sort of healthy to get all those frustrations out and not linger inside you, that’s maybe the reason they can enjoy a long and healthy life… Sort of therapeutic.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh, so that’s what’s wrong with some people I know..LOL! I’m an American and it isn’t considered polite here to complain all the time. LOL! The American way is suck it up, keep your mouth shut and deal with the stomach ulcers from repressive emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

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