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Is the French obsession with "cultural exception" declining?

By Joffre Agnes

learn French
learn French



Have you ever been to France and tried to speak English with French people once you were there? If you have, I'm sure you noticed how bad French people are at foreign languages and their reluctance to make any sort of efforts. Trust me, this is not just about English, it's with any language. Even if Europe speaks English and the rest of the world speaks English, France keeps on speaking French and is completely oblivious to what the rest of the world is up to. In fact, it is not just due to the failure of the school system, it has deeper cultural roots than that.



French people are so attached to their "exception culturelle" (cultural exception) that they keep on fighting against the creeping invasion of English like Asterix against the Roman invasion. In fact Asterix is a great example of French identity: his popularity may be partly due to his brave and eternal resistance to shelter his village from invasions. Culturally speaking it is a point of national pride: the French exception has to be protected from the English temptation exactly like Asterix’ village from the Roman invasion. French singers sing in French, foreign films have to be dubbed and English words cannot be used in advertising unless they are translated.



French language is so important that France is the only country to have an "Académie" to protect and update it properly. The "Académie Française" is in fact composed of forty members, known as "immortels" (immortals) who act as the official authority on the French language. The President of France himself is its protector and grants his approval for each new member. Since 1763 they published dictionaries which are regarded as official... It’s a very serious thing and as French culture has come under increased pressure with globalisation, the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicisation of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended that some loan words from English (such as walkman, software and email) be avoided, in favour of words derived from French (baladeur, logiciel, and courriel respectively). Could you imagine such an organisation in the UK or in the United States? That’s the reason why all the French-speaking communities in the world are united in a strong cultural organisation called the "Francophonie" who defends the French speaking culture all over the world.

Americanisation of culture
Americanisation of culture

However it doesn't explain why French people are so concerned about their cultural exception. Let's not forget that France, not so long ago, used to be the cultural centre of the world.  For centuries French was "de rigueur" for diplomacy and that until the First World War. During the 18th century French was spoken all over the world and during the colonization, France had assigned itself some sort of a "civilizing mission". Moreover France was the birthplace of the Age of Enlightenment, the Human Rights... Considering this, there is no surprise that French people feel a kind of superiority complex, culturally speaking. That's why in France it is so often referred to the "exception culturelle": French people want to emphasise their superiority especially facing the Anglo-Saxon culture and its creeping invasion. This will is really strong today since  French has became only the 12th most widely spoken language. Such a decline which produces such a narcissistic scathe. That could explain why France is so hostile to Anglo-Saxon culture and especially anti-American. De Gaulle is the perfect embodiment for this French characteristic which is still deep established in French identity.


Moreover let’s remind that France and the United Kingdom are historic rivals and enemies. For French people, speaking English now is like being occupied again, like during the Hundred Years’ War and burning Joan of Arc again. Admittedly it’s quite a strong metaphor but history has a strong influence on the psychology of a country. Both of these feelings of pride and rivalry have left their mark on the French collective unconscious.


Moreover nobody takes culture more seriously than the French: culture has a ministry of its own, a lot of governments subsidies are allocated to French artists... Nowadays even the French law protects this cultural exception as a guaranty of cultural diversity which is menaced by the American industry. For example there are some quotas on broadcasting:  since 1994, 40 per cent of the radio programming during the peak listening time has to be in the French. Such a protectionist step! It is easy to understand why some strong critics came out: French cultural exception is regarded as an illegitimate way to protect a declining culture unable to resist in the new global world. Last year the Times wrote an article about the "Death of French Culture" explaining that government cultural subsidies only lead to mediocrity and that protectionism impedes export. The article argued that French cultural prestige would not come back with political measures but only with some new imaginative artists who could cross borders.

The Time
The Time
Nicolas Sarkozy wearing a NYPD T-Shirt
Nicolas Sarkozy wearing a NYPD T-Shirt

However this year, Sebastien Tellier who represented France at the Eurovision song contest sang in English whereas “franglais” is emerging more and more in advertising and everyday language. More and more French singer write in English to have a larger audience and some French films are shot in English. For example “Taken” is directed by the French Pierre Morel, co-written by the French Luc Besson but it is shot in English. Even Le Monde concedes " The children of globalisation are giving up writing in French". Does this mean French people have finally understood that French is not a global language any more? Such a revolution! 
Moreover it seems to have a real political will to improve the French level in English and a huge political standing back from the traditional Anti-Americanism. The current French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in fact pro-American and in favour of globalisation.

That is really annoying for the French intellectual elite who is extremely worried about the end of its exceptional nature. However French cultural exception will not disappear so fast. In fact it seems that there are dreams above all: Xavier Darcos, minister of Education recently promised that all pupils would go out of compulsory school bilingual! Sweet dream which is not going to be fulfilled so quickly since French students are very, very bad at foreign language and since French resistance to the Anglo-Saxon culture is really deep established. Even if French people turn out to be less resistant to Anglo-Saxon culture and language, they keep their own view on culture.


So, British people, even if French people will stay chauvinistic and even sometimes arrogant, get ready to hear their cute accent and, before making fun of them, let's hear yours in French!



22/06/2012 - charron22 said :

I am a doctoral student in French Linguistics in Quebec. I hail from India. As far as the French and the English go, considering their historic love affair, it is better to leave it to the others to decide which one is richer and more practical. I, as Indian, am anglophone. As far as French goes, nothing can be more illogical. It is the biggest lie to claim that French is a logical language. It becomes amply clear if one considers the proverbs in English and French. For e.g. Slow and steady wins the race= Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point. While the English say, once you start running run slowly and steadily, the French say, it is enough to leave on time. Going by the logic of the French, Usain Bolt will lose the race. The rule is learners of French are asked to take concepts with a grain of salt. With so many illogical exceptions with malicious intent with a view to keep off the masses from learning and understanding the designs of the ruling elite, there are very few languages that can match the exclusivist tendancies that abound in French. While English too has its share of inconsistencies in pronunciation and language use, its clarity makes it the most appropopriate language for philosophical and political discussions. Long live the English language. By the way, food and their (European) penchant for high life comes from Egypt and the East. The Europeans just perfected it and credit should be given for that. Thanks.

14/02/2012 - hyperionknox said :

i smile when some French go on about the the English cultural invasion . It seems little is taught about the invasion and domination of the English via the Norman French circa 1066 in French schools.
They changed their culture and language for ever introducing 10,000 French words(forcibly) into the English language. What goes around , comes around!
Imagine the English word police going through lists of military , culinary, legal terms and replacing the French origin words with Germanic -Norse -Celt ones.
Or imagine the English, French and Spanish trying to eliminate paparazzi from their respective vocabularies. and replace it with an equivalent compact expression?
It could be done...but with great difficulty.
Language is evolutionary and follows the laws of natural selection and words are the fragments of DNA that tells us where our cultures have been and what they are evolving into.
in the plains of Africa , smart baboons learn the languages of dozens of different bird' species warning vocabularies . The ones that don't get consumed by predators.

21/09/2011 - mark said :

What a great resuocre this text is.

18/07/2011 - delsa said :

Disgusting, badly written and ill-informed article, spreading perceptions instead of facts, i'm afraid based on similar articles before, forming some sort of propaganda.

For those not understanding that French culture is vivid today, yes people culture, street culture and even leading the pack in Europe currently...just a few things to research...

Parkour (seen in the last very British James Bond movies...and several Hollywood movies), Tektonik and French touch electro, Trompe l'oeil art (born in Lyon...), Street artists like JR... potholes fillers like Herrera, 'experimental' musicians like Camille "the French Bjork", fingerstyle guitarists, French Gipsy Jazz a few decades before but still vivid and always renewing itself... 38% of market share in French theaters for French movies,the highest percentage of national films revenues in developed countries (minus the U.S), to compare with 13.7% in Spain and 8.3% in the UK... Although the French film market is dominated by Hollywood, it is however the Western country (out of the United States) where the share of the American films in the total film revenues is the smallest, at 50.1%, to compare with 77.3% of Germany and 69.4% of Japan. All the rest are foreign movies, that you guys put in thios disgusting category of "world movies", world if they were one monolith...French people are more OPEN to foreign cultures than most English spêaking countries will ever be. Cultural exception has nothing to do with xenophobia. Paris has the biggest number of movie theaters per inhabitants in the world, and in most "downtown Paris" movie theaters, foreign movies which would be secluded to "art houses" cinemas in other places, are shown alongside "mainstream" works. We respect culture, our own too. And most of our continental European neighbours are following, and we couldn't be happier. One language, one diluted single culture and way of thinking for the world? Never. Over our dead bodies. Same goes for regional cultures and languages. May they survive and thrive.

09/05/2011 - jimvar said :


the english were not the first to exploit african slaves. The north african slave trade took place well before theirs. The english eventually banned slavery & installed a system to police the seas & eradicate its practice.

The french banned slavery several decades after the english.

Bad things still happen, as you testify, & they are wrong.

The french had no problem with installing their language as the official language of england through their royal families & William the conqueror had no problem with his wiping out of villages & towns so he could install the french way of life in england.

France has given a lot to the world. If you look at your blog, though, you will see that most of what you quote is anchored firmly in the past:classical music, chateaux,impressionists.

What happened to the inventiveness? Where's the spark of today? What NEW french cultural items are taking the world by storm? By culture i mean the words & actions of the french, not this pompous, elitist, variation which has come to overshadow the real meaning.

Culture is ever-evolving. It's the constant friction & movement of an array of ingredients that creates innovations. To strangle that process by limiting the ingredients is to take away the possibility of the creation of another great day for french culture - a new culture, a street culture, a people's culture, not an elitist, academie française policed culture.

And how many of their films go global? Or their pop groups? Or their tv series? What do they invent & give to "culture" at the moment? Why isn't france the boiling pot of culture it once was? Why did most french culture come from the age of the royal families, whom the people chose to behead? Was it because they had pots of money which gave them the choice of employing the greatest artists, architects & masons of the time? But they certainly used it extremely well. They have style & a wish to do things well.

The french can see that nearly all their present culture, as goes for most of the world, comes from english speaking cultures: windows 7; R & B; baseball caps; rock & roll; football; rugby; rosbif & steak frites; sandwiches; burgers; hollywood; dr. house; CSI; nike training shoes; break dancing; the internet; bmx; basketball...

France is a most beautiful country. France is rich, in wealth & in everyday life, but it's definitely stuck in a moment. It cannot accept that its day at the top has passed. Once you see as much "protection", "exception", "identity", you know that it's holding on to something which is pulling away, fast.

You cannot hold back progress. Some countries go with it, some fight it. It seems as though france has chosen to stop the clock & cocoon itself in this self-lavishing, narssisic moment.

I hope they keep their own language, but the very fact that they protect it from outside infiltration is the reason it will never be a natural global 2nd language, as opposed to english, which accepts all input (just take a dictionary of english & see how many french words are in there).

They protect everything: champage has to come from the champagne region; evian... roquefort... Can you imagine if all countries started to do that. Look at how much the italians have given without wanting anything in return: pizza, for example. Imagine also the french telling us that any rules other than the french football federation's rules do not constitute the true & noble game & shall be forbidden.

The french: you have a great country with great traditions & a great way of life, but, please, we prefer it much more when it is we who tell you & not the other way round.

27/10/2010 - acetique said :

"Learn french, it is much easier than to understand French speaking english." The guy who wrote this is absolutely stupid and ignorant. I recently went to england. I have a modest english level but at least, i can speak english. When i was there, i could ask a few people some help to find my way and they understood me. By contrast. I met nobody there who was able to say more than"bonjour" or "au revoir". Here in France, in my neighborhood, everyone can speak english and use at least the most useful sentences and structures.
So who is reluctant ?
The guy who wrote this knows nothing about France, so he should shut his mouth.
We have nothing against foreign languages and we like english. But we use it as a tool, nothing more. We want to preserve our beautiful language and we don't care if you are wrong with this.

24/07/2010 - doomed french said :

Well here we go again ,in every blog about the french you come across the french lover suckers,Suck on ,your language is doomed in EU as an official one ,very soon

17/06/2010 - miren said :

French may be only the 12th most widely spoken language, but in terms of hstory, influence and culture it must be in the top four alongside English, Spanish and Italian!
With writers like Moliere,Voltaire,Stendhal,Victor Hugo,
Musicians such as St Saens,Marc Antoine Charpentier, Bizet,Liszt, Sati,Delieb...
and artits of the calibre of Poussin,Cezanne, Renoir,Toulouse Lautrec,Gaugin, Sisley, Manet, Monnet....
shall I go on with the musicians,the scientists, the inventers......the architects, the catherdrals, the chateaux...?
No, France must be one of the great world cultures,( who set up the EU, Robert Schuman, and Jean Monnet, both Frencmen !), and let us not forget some of the great actrices and beauties of the 20th Century, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot,Anouk Aimee, Sophie Marceau,
you are right, and smart.. The French is unique. do not forget something. We were the first to accept the slaves to study in France!!the anglo saxons regarded us as negroe, inferior.. the French has a very famous creole writer Alfred mercier. do not debase the French. France is for diversity and I am an Afro American person and believe me in 1960 i was able to study in France not in England ( i was a negro.. not in France..) France was against slavery. The british executed us when we married a white woman, not the French in Louisiana..France understimates its culture.. I owe a lot to France, my education, and my freedom.. in 1960 i could not study in an American university, but in France yes.. not in England, but in Paris... the British or the Anglo saxons thinkg they are better than any races, it is because of darwin that Hitler came into power. The French should be admired! why? they were the first to see the danger: anglo saxon invasion: destruction of other cultures.. racism, slavery, death penalty, lynching.. look at your own history,

12/03/2010 - arandano20 said :

Very arrogant the french and there is nothing special about it,In matter of fact the french language is the most illogical language there is ,everything is back to front.The sooner that noise is gone in europe the better.Vive le english everywhere...

12/03/2010 - synergy said :

Having lived in France in the 90s, I was really shocked and disappointed, during a recent visit, at the vast amount of English (and Frenglish!) used in advertising and all forms of media, and most of the time gratuitously. Whether they like to admit it or not, the French obviously feel that English is a "cool" language, otherwise why would they bother using it all the time? So, I think the biggest threat to the French language comes from its own speakers. For the record, I think French is a beautiful and fascinating language, and I'm not in favour of linguistic globalisation, although English obviously has the edge right now as a global "lingua franca".

08/02/2010 - Verheijen said :

OH happy days for europe.So now at last we can ignore the arrogant french speakers in europe.At last...And it will get worse for them ,once the world gets to know that there is no need for this useless noise then the wonderfull decline will become a snowball.If europe in the 1950s had voted for only one language in EU then it would by now be more united.Blame the arrogant de Gaul for this.

05/11/2008 - s.pollock-hill said :

French may be only the 12th most widely spoken language, but in terms of hstory, influence and culture it must be in the top four alongside English, Spanish and Italian!
With writers like Moliere,Voltaire,Stendhal,Victor Hugo,
Musicians such as St Saens,Marc Antoine Charpentier, Bizet,Liszt, Sati,Delieb...
and artits of the calibre of Poussin,Cezanne, Renoir,Toulouse Lautrec,Gaugin, Sisley, Manet, Monnet....
shall I go on with the musicians,the scientists, the inventers......the architects, the catherdrals, the chateaux...?
No, France must be one of the great world cultures,( who set up the EU, Robert Schuman, and Jean Monnet, both Frencmen !), and let us not forget some of the great actrices and beauties of the 20th Century, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot,Anouk Aimee, Sophie Marceau,
and then the great chefs Escoffier,Bocuse,les Freres Troisgros, Ducasse, Blanc, Ggnaire, etc,
Les grands vinobles.... Bordeaux,Bourgogne.,
Great companies, St Gobain, Danone, Michelin,Renault, Peugeout, etc.

The French underestimate the great contribution in culture that they add to life, and
the French, more than most nations,underestimate their influence and talent on the world stage!

17/10/2008 - p_allard said :

There is also a royal academy of the Spanish language, so France isn't that exceptional- in that aspect at least.
L'Académie française dates back to 1635 and the Real Academia Española to 1713, but they are both predated by the Accademia della Crusca of 1582.

14/10/2008 - ombellifern3 said :

So it's acceptable, and even desirable, for English to be a "global language"? And French, with its humble number of speakers, should be accused of dreaming itself as one ("global language") when it's simply trying to survive in a world where everyone should conform to the same global trend. French is my mother tongue, but I speak English most of the time as I live in the UK. I love and "respect" (as in -try to use correctly) both languages, but have grown to cherish French even more since I've been living abroad. I have a passion for languages and I don't understand what the problem is in a language continuing to live in the mouths, heads, hearts and souls of a group of people, be they thousands or millions.


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