What surprises people when they move to France?

From not being immediately entitled to holidays to the national obsession with yoghurt

What are the biggest cultural differences in France?

Anyone moving to a new country is bound to experience a few surprises. But what are some of the most unusual for people arriving in France? 

The dairy section in the supermarket is huge 

The French are renowned for their love of cheese, but they are less well known for their adoration of yoghurt. 

Step into any French supermarket and you will see fridges upon fridges of yoghurt. Many French people will eat yoghurt everyday, either for breakfast or dessert. 

Several polls put the French as the biggest yoghurt eaters on the planet – they eat 21 kg per person per year, according to Europe 2.

Bank holidays fall on the actual day of the week

Unlike public holidays in the UK, French holidays that fall midweek are not moved to the nearest Monday, but celebrated on the exact day on which they fall. 

This leads to some weeks – for example in May – that have two bank holidays within as many days – May 8 (Victory in Europe Day) and May 9 (Ascension Day). A great excuse to take a holiday and make the most of the days off. 

Read more: 2024 bank holiday dates in France and how they are celebrated

People really do have lunch at midday 

Compared to many other countries, where the trend of eating at your desk or grabbing a quick lunch to go has become more and more common, France continues to enshrine lunch as the most important meal of the day. 

Most French people take their lunch break at exactly 12pm midday and many will enjoy a leisurely meal of more than one course. 

Even in schools, children and staff tend to eat better than the typical packed lunch popular in many British and American canteens. Schools even post their weekly menus outside so parents can check what their children are eating – and maybe even plan their family meals with this in mind. 

Read more: Eating faux-pas: habits to avoid when dining in France

You have to work a whole year without holiday in a new job 

Many people moving to France for a new job are surprised to learn that they are not legally entitled to any holiday days within the first year of their contract. 

Workers are entitled to five weeks holiday per year, but this must be earned – you get 2.5 days holiday for every month worked. 

Read more: Can I have holidays in the first year of my contract?

Since 2016, workers are allowed to take their days off within the first year, but only if their employer agrees. 

You could have to wait three days before you get sick pay when ill

Many employees in France must wait three days before sick pay is paid out, on the fourth day of being off work. 

Pay equals 50% of their basic daily wage. 

Most people have to pay to see the doctor

Patients coming from countries such as the UK are sometimes surprised that most people have to pay when they visit the doctor or have a medical procedure in France. 

Patients often have to pay medical costs up front, before being reimbursed, at least in part. 

If you are a resident and have a carte vitale, the state portion of your medical costs will be paid back, usually within a few days. 

For example, a GP visit costs €26.50 and 70% is currently reimbursed. 

Read more: Explainer: Paying to see a doctor or health specialist in France

The French love their pharmacies 

Pharmacies are an institution in France, the glowing green cross visible – it often seems – on practically every street corner. 

The French love the pharmacy, and its popularity has spread beyond its borders, with French pharmacies even going viral on TikTok for their quality beauty and skincare brands.

Read more: 16 things you can do at a French pharmacy other than buy aspirin

Half days on Wednesday 

Many French primary schools close on Wednesday afternoons, which means many parents choose to take Wednesday afternoons off too. 

This creates a welcome break in the middle of the week. 

Read more: A guide to starting at school in France

Bread is taken very seriously 

The humble French baguette obtained UNESCO recognition in 2022, and as anyone who spends time in France realises, the importance of le pain is not to be understated. 

Most French lunches are accompanied by a baguette on the table – note the bread is usually placed directly onto the table, not served on a side plate. 

Read more: Five things they don’t tell you about baguettes in France

Expect a fish on your back on April Fool’s Day

While it is common for people to play pranks and the media to plant fake stories on April Fool’s Day in France, the most common trick is to stick a paper fish onto someone’s back and have a good laugh at them. 

April Fool’s Day in France is known as Poisson d’Avril (April Fish) and whoever has the misfortune of having the fish stuck to their back becomes the “April Fish”.