For many, French culture is synonymous with the country’s food and wine, its iconic fashion houses or the films of Truffaut and Godard.
But one aspect that perhaps does not get the attention it deserves is French literature.
From 20th-century stalwarts Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to mediaeval philosophers Réné Descartes and Michel de Montaigne via Molière, Zola and Victor Hugo, the list of famous French writers is endless.
To mark France’s national day for independent bookshops - la Fête de la librairie indépendante - we take a look at what helps to foster France’s love of literature.
1. Pocket books
One thing that sets French readers apart is their affinity for smaller books that are prominent throughout the country.
Unlike in the UK or the US - where books are generally larger - a number of French publishers print a wide range of reading material in the pocket book format.
The size became popular with soldiers in World War One, allowing them to keep a book on them in the trenches without compromising themselves with extra equipment. Ever since publishers have continued to publish works in this format.
This applies to both newly released books (which can be printed in both larger and smaller sizes) and reprintings of classic works of literature in the style of a pocket book.
These books are particularly popular in Paris and other big French cities. They can fit easily in a suit pocket or small handbag and be read when standing on a cramped metro or tram. Their flexibility and lightness mean you are never weighed down with one in your pocket.
2. Pocket prices
It is not only the size of the books in France that contribute to people’s reading habits, but the prices, too.
In 1994, Flammarion re-published a series of classic books under the new Librio banner, costing just 10 Francs (about €1.50 in today’s money).
This allowed people from all income levels to get the opportunity to read classic literature, and there are now more than 1,000 titles in the series, covering everything from poetry and literature to philosophical essays and cartoons.
The first book in the series was Guy Maupassant’s Le Horla. Other early works included Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Stephen King’s The Monkey.
A number of other publishing houses in France followed suit and released their range of cut-price editions, meaning you can almost always guarantee you’ll find a book you can afford with the change in your back pocket.
The Librio range is still popular and books remain good value, with some costing as little as €2. This keeps reading as one of the cheapest pastimes in France.
Read more: Books to help improve your French
3: The love (and protection) of independent bookstores
The French hold a special place in their hearts for independent bookstores and are inextricably tied to the literary output of the country.
Bucking a trend seen across Europe, the number of such bookshops is rising in France. Last year, 142 bookstores stores opened across the country.
Overall, there are around 3,500 independent bookstores across France – about as many in the UK and US combined.
These bookshops are filled with everything from novels and political texts to cartoons and children’s books and are often at the heart of a community.
The government has given independent bookstores considerable protection from larger competitors, including Amazon and Fnac.
In 1981, the Loi Lang - a groundbreaking piece of legislation designed to protect bookshops - limited discounts on newly released books to 5%, preventing national stores from undercutting independent ones.
More recently, the government announced a €3 minimum shipping charge for online book orders under €35, in a bid to get bookworms to browse and buy at their local stores instead of online.
4. Literary prizes
Most people know about the Nobel Prize for Literature (which has been won more times by French writers than any other nationality and was most recently awarded to French author Annie Ernaux but there are a number of other prestigious prizes that centre around Francophone authors.
The most well-known of these is probably the Prix Goncourt, which has been running since 1903. Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Houellebecq are among those to have received the award.
The prize is not solely for French authors but for authors who write in French, meaning winners have come from former French colonies such as Morocco and Senegal, Francophone countries in Europe such as Belgium and has even seen a winner from Afghanistan.
The prize is one of the ‘big six’ literary awards in France – others include the Prix Medicis for up-and-coming authors, the Prix Femina, created in protest against the Goncourt’s all-male judging panel, and the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française, awarded by its namesake.
Winning one of these awards is seen as a great honour and the history and grandiosity of an award such as the Prix Goncourt makes it a huge event on the French cultural calendar, with perhaps even more attention paid to this than to the Nobel Prize in France.
5. Prestigious book fairs
Alongside bookshops and prizes, the economic impact of books is important in France, with the country seeing some of the biggest and most prestigious book fairs in the world.
No country hosts more book fairs each year than France and although many are centred around the capital, a number of well-known events relating to literature can be found throughout the country.
Although sometimes difficult to reconcile books and television, a number of TV shows in France centred on the world of literature.
Perhaps the most well-known of these was Un livre, un jour, a one-minute programme that gave a brief overview of a different book to viewers every day, increasing their awareness of not just Francophone, but global literature.
An astonishing 6,084 episodes of the show ran before its cancellation in December 2020.
On top of this, a range of other shows aimed at presenting literature from either France or overseas, and the frequency of inviting authors onto talk shows and for interviews, keep books at the forefront of French people’s minds.
There is also the ‘national day of reading’, an annual event created in 2018 by the Ministry of Education which invites everyone in France to collectively read for 15 minutes at the same time on March 10.
This is to help strengthen “the nation’s attachment to literature” and for children and adults alike to bond over reading.
6. It is ingrained into French culture
A study in 2019 from the Centre National du Livre shows that 92% of French people read at least one book a year, and 88% of people read as a hobby.
Around one-in-two people read every day or almost every day, and 31% of respondents said they read more than twenty books a year.
The study also showed that 84% of French people buy books as a gift, helping to cement the reading culture for both adults and children.
At school, French children have a wide range of classic French literature to read, and by splitting classes into distinct literature and grammar lessons, devote more time to reading.
Most children, therefore, grow up to be acutely aware of some of France’s literary output, and across their literature and mandatory philosophy classes, will experience some of the world’s most famous writers.
As in the UK and the US, France emits ‘soft power’ through its culture, and France - Paris in particular - has the image of a bohemian beacon for writers, drawn to the country for centuries.
The classics are held in high esteem, and particularly in the 20th century, the idea of authors in smoky Parisian ‘left bank’ cafés discussing philosophy was spread to the world.
Some of the best-known authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, lived (and wrote) about their time in Paris.
The French are fiercely proud of their literature and literary greats, and with such a wealth of authors to choose from, it is no wonder that reading still holds such a special place in their hearts.