Skip to main content

10 things France does better than anywhere else

By Stephen Clarke, for CNN
February 27, 2014 -- Updated 0606 GMT (1406 HKT)
The vast Château de Chambord, one of France's great museums, and also apparently the perfect place to shoot a Brazilian telenovela, as here. The vast Château de Chambord, one of France's great museums, and also apparently the perfect place to shoot a Brazilian telenovela, as here.
HIDE CAPTION
1. Museums
2. Cheese
3. Sexiness
4. Luxury
5. Traffic jams
6. Shopping
7. Politeness (French-style)
8. Trains
9. Globalization
10. Customer Service
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The French are impeccably polite -- really
  • They're so good at making certain cheeses that the United States has tried to restrict them
  • Their traffic jams are world class, but so are their (very fast) trains
  • Globalization: simultaneously the bane of France and something it excels at

Editor's note: This story is part of a series highlighting superlatives of countries around the world. Click here for pieces on Italy, the United States, Canada, Taiwan, India and South Korea, and watch for upcoming installments featuring other countries.

(CNN) -- France is an impressive country.

And nobody knows it better than the French.

The country is surprisingly like the United States (which it taught a thing or two about liberté) in that you don't really ever need to leave.

There are sophisticated cities, sunny seashores, snowy mountains and wooded valleys all in one country.

Not to mention a lot of cheese.

And sex.

As well as quite a few other things the French do superlatively well.

Mimolette: controlled substance.
Mimolette: controlled substance.

1. Cheese

Yes, it's a cliché but France remains the ultimate destination for cheese lovers.

General de Gaulle once asked how he was meant to govern a country that produced 246 varieties of cheese.

Maybe he was afraid they were living organisms and would start a revolution.

READ: Is Paris still cool? Hell yeah! (But not for the reasons you think)

Some French cheeses, such as Reblochon, are so smelly and runny they seem to be decomposing.

Even mild, hard Mimolette is apparently so scary that last year the United States restricted its import.

No one's arguing against the existence of great cheeses around the world -- but no French citizen needs to go much further than the corner shop to find one.

MORE: 10 things the United States does better than anywhere else

Quirky boutiques -- such as Paris taxidermists Deyrolle -- remain a French specialty.
Quirky boutiques -- such as Paris taxidermists Deyrolle -- remain a French specialty.

2. Shopping

There's a reason the French invented the word "bourgeois," which now stands in for all things materialistic.

Paris department stores stock everything from cheap generic brands to labels so chic you feel the need to dress up before trying them on.

The annual sales in January and at the end of June offer unbelievable bargains because by law all stores have to discount prices at the same time and compete for business.

READ: Paris ghost metro stations could get a stunning second life

At the other end, the French have defended their small, often family-owned neighborhood stores -- boulangeries, boucheries, épiceries -- from being steamrollered by chains.

The French also do quirky, one-off boutiques probably better than anyone else.

3. Museums

Paris, of course, is home to perhaps the world's best known museum, the Louvre.

But French museum culture spreads much wider afield.

The Loire region has what is arguably the most beautiful collection of museums in the world -- its chateaux include the huge Chambord, with a spectacular collection of tapestries, and the impossibly romantic Chenonceau, astride its moat.

Even the lesser-known castles can be wonderful -- Chinon, for example, is set above a perfectly preserved old town.

You can almost hear Joan of Arc riding up to the gate and offering to kick the English invaders out of France.

4. Trains

French trains are faster than planes.

If you want to go from Paris to the Mediterranean coast for lunch, hop on a TGV -- train à grande vitesse, or "very fast train."

Three hours later, you'll be sipping rosé and gazing at billionaires' yachts while the fliers are still putting in a claim for their lost luggage.

TGVs crisscross the country, and the SNCF (French national railways) offers excellent online deals -- first class for just a little more than second.

The French might like the good life but it needn't also mean slow.

MORE: 10 things India does better than anywhere else

5. Traffic jams

The average French driver's notion of etiquette is a strong but terrifying one: I'm going that way, and you can't stop me.

If going where he or she wants to means causing an accident or total gridlock, that's everyone else's fault, non?

The unwillingness to acknowledge any other car on the roads -- the supreme French belief in liberté incarnated in the automobile -- means that on every Saturday in summer, and on national holidays, the whole country is transformed into a huge traffic jam as everyone drives to or from their vacation at exactly the same time.

A simple \
A simple "bonjour!" goes a long way.

6. Politeness

Politeness -- the French?

Aren't they notoriously abrupt, especially Parisians when addressing non-French-speaking tourists?

More accurately, the French have mastered the art of being impeccably polite and startlingly dismissive at the same time.

When a posh maître d' raises one eyebrow and oozes "Monsieur?" or "Madame?" at you, he's simultaneously respecting you and questioning your right to exist.

MORE: 10 things Italy does better than anywhere else

But if you get the hang of French politeness, anything is possible.

The golden rule is simple: you should begin every conversation with a bright "bonjour!" ("bonsoir!" in the evening).

This doesn't just mean hello.

It's recognized French code for, "Yes, I am here, and I am respecting you by being polite, so you are going to respect me and maybe even be pleasant to me."

All that in one magic word -- and it works.

7. Sexiness

It's hard to pin down sexiness but, for many, "being French" is a good working definition.

That accent, plus a certain insouciance and joie de vivre (yep, inevitably slipping into French here) make a pretty attractive package in both men and women.

And then there's plain sex, which is everywhere in France.

Take French films, for example, which almost by law have to include at least two naked breasts and four buttocks.

Frenchmen and women know the rules of attraction equally well and rarely stop playing.

It's almost a duty to look sexy and classy whenever anyone else is around -- and to leave a memorable impression.

Light-touch luxury: very French.
Light-touch luxury: very French.

8. Luxury

It's a clever trick.

When you think of luxury goods, the word "French" slips almost automatically into place.

Today, the French talent for luxury has trickled down beyond Louis Vuitton, Dior, Moët et Chandon and the rest.

READ: London beats Paris as top tourist city. Really?

Its effects can be felt in the dozens of stylish Parisian cafés with starched-apron waiters, and in the many reasonably priced spa hotels, such as Thalazur (French site only), that can make you feel like a millionaire without charging you accordingly.

French light-touch sophistication has been copied worldwide.

9. Customer Service (oh yes)

Related to "politeness," but with an important retail distinction.

The French have a saying: the customer is king.

Yes, and we know what you did to your kings.

But behind a sometime façade of surly indifference, French service can be wonderful.

That grumpy waiter doesn't hate you, it's just that he's a pro and you're an amateur on his territory.

MORE: How to be a Parisian: 11 ways to fake it

The same goes for the snooty department store saleswoman.

Unlike in other countries, such jobs in France can still be lifelong careers, bringing a lifetime's worth of skills.

The thing to do is soldier on, smile and inform your server what you want.

The French respect people who know what they want, and will do their best to help you get it (as long as it's not just before their lunchtime, of course.)

Public toilets: often French.
Public toilets: often French.

10. Globalization

France has the world's best policy on globalization -- it spends so much time complaining that foreign invaders are killing off its economy that no one notices how French products are taking over the planet.

Have you checked recently who provides your electricity, who owns your transportation system, who feeds your army, even who built your city's public toilets?

Especially if you live in Europe, there's a strong chance you'll find a French multinational, such as EDF, Transdev, Sodexo or JCDecaux.

That's not to mention the countless French brands on every shopping street in the world.

Next time a French person tells you Hollywood is destroying French culture, just point to the nearest public toilet.

READ: Paris by color -- a new way to see the city

Stephen Clarke's (@sclarkewriter) books about France include "A Year in the Merde" and "Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0626 GMT (1426 HKT)
the Teufelsberg or
Spooks have left their mark on a once-divided city still thought to be an espionage hotbed.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 2206 GMT (0606 HKT)
nanjing, handicrafts
With more than 6,000 years of history, Nanjing is one of the few cities in China still practicing the country's endangered traditional crafts.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Rock and weather collide over millennia to create natural bridges. Here are 15 of our favorites from around the world.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0539 GMT (1339 HKT)
A one-nun brewing operation, Sister Doris is putting Germany's women beer makers on the map. Sort of.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0607 GMT (1407 HKT)
From Myanmar to Mickey Mouse, Stefan Zwanzger, aka The Theme Park Guy, gives his rundown of the best.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Four hundred years after the death of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, her murderous exploits prove a grisly attraction.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Formed by volcanoes and steeped in a rich history of Polynesian culture, Hawaii sounds more like a place in a fantasy novel rather than an American travel oasis.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 2356 GMT (0756 HKT)
Despite Kyoto's allure, until this year there's been a glaring absence from the city's travel scene -- a top tier, super-luxury hotel brand.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Why global adventurer Alastair Humphreys now looks for 'microadventures' close to home.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Don't order Corona and don't freak out when you see Jessica Alba without makeup and you might pass for local.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
History buff? Hardcore surfer? These South Pacific islands have every traveler covered.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Airlines and airports are going high-tech to reduce your time in line.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
Summer isn't over yet. These new hotels are keeping it alive and fresh.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Eight of the top 10 scoring cities in the Economic Intelligence Unit's annual Liveability Survey are in Australia and Canada.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
When a man tells me to "trust him," my typical reaction is to run.
ADVERTISEMENT