4 Advanced French Culture Topics to Explore for French Learners

The cultural aspect is an enormous part of learning a foreign language—especially French.

It can be hard to hold a conversation with a native French speaker, or understand French books and movies completely, if you don’t have at least some grasp of culture and social issues.

If you’re an advanced student looking to deepen your knowledge of French language and culture, you’ve come to the right place

We’ve assembled four of the most important French cultural traditions and events that you’ve got to know about.


4 Significant Advanced French Culture Topics that Learners Should Research

1. The Values of the French Republic

France is technically a republic — the current French government is the 5th incarnation of a republic since the monarchy was disbanded, so on official documents you’ll often see it written that way. The first French republic came about after the French Revolution in 1789. The French Revolution sought to decrease the inequalities between the poor tiers état and the rich aristocracy, monarchy and clergy.

The values that were highlighted by these revolutionaries stemmed from the writings of the Lumières, a generation of 18th century writers including Rousseau and Voltaire, who highlighted, above all, equality and liberty. These two values form the first part of the the French motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). The last part came about later, after several other failed versions including liberté, égalité ou la mort (liberty, equality or death).

Learn more about the values of the French Republic by reading works written by the Lumières, like Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or the entry on liberty in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.

Learn more about the history of the values of the French Republic on the official website of the Elysée Palace, which has an entry for the motto.

Learning about these values, particularly the way that they developed during the French Revolution, can help you understand many French current events. For example, it will definitely offer you some insight on the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting and subsequent reaction in the French news media.

2. Immigration, Colonization and Francophonie in France

Like many European countries, France has a colonial past.

This means that there are many other countries that speak French today, including many African nations. The French term for the wide span of countries that speak French outside France is Francophonie, a generalization that includes Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and former colonies.

It is, however, this latter group with which the most strife continues to occur.

Immigration is a difficult issue in France today, particularly because extreme instances of violence against the police have been ongoing within the poor immigrant and 2nd degree immigrant communities for several years.

Hardline right wing politicians want to forbid immigration altogether, particularly from North African regions like Algeria, which was a French colony up until the 1960s when France withdrew from Algeria and it became an independent nation.

However, there are other instances of immigration that have been quite positive in France. Before drawing any of your own conclusions, it’s important to understand the history of France’s relation with Algeria, other North African nations and other former French and Belgian French-speaking colonies in Africa.

To do so, aside from Internet research, you can try exploring some of the instances of Franco-colonial and immigration politics in the French media.

To explore the history of France’s relations with Algeria, there are many different media to turn to. L’ennemi intime is a fictional film about the war in Algeria that was nonetheless based on research done for a documentary by the screenwriter. Albert Camus explores the French pied noir experience in North Africa — Camus was a Frenchman born and raised in Algeria.

Modern Franco-Maghrebin relations are explored through the comedy of Jamel Debbouze and Mohamed Fellag, and you can also read about the Franco-Algerian experience through Algerian novels on the subject. One particularly interesting work is Alger sans Mozarta collaborative effort between a Frenchman and an Algerian.

Of course, colonization and Francophonie don’t end with Algeria and the North African countries. Many writers from countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and the Congo offer their own experiences through literature and films. Try the Francophone section of your local French language library for more ideas.

3. The Occupation and Collaboration of World War II in France

France kept the Collaboration with Germany as quiet as possible for some time, but starting with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, it has been discussed more and more openly.

France surrendered to the German army, offering up the northern part of the country to the occupying German government and moving a provisional and collaborationist government to the south. This government was called Vichy and ended the 3rd French Republic.

The French collaboration included many different things, such as willfully sending foreign Jews (and occasionally French Jews) to concentration camps in the East — allowing Germans to fully occupy French cities — and sending young French men to Germany to help with the war effort against Russia.

The French Resistance was an underground movement of several groups including Communists and Gaullists, who were loyal to General (later President) Charles de Gaulle, who had exiled himself to London. The Resistance helped the allies of the United States and England to liberate the country in 1945.

There’s quite a bit of information on this period in French history, but there’s one particular movie that highlights the collaboration on the subject of French and foreign Jews incredibly well — La rafle

If you’d like to learn even more about this entire period in French history, the French television series Un village français traces the entire occupation and liberation of one small village on the border between free and occupied France over 6 seasons, beginning in 1940 and ending in 1945. It not only shows how people were affected on an individual scale but offers extremely accurate examples of radio news programs that were broadcasting at the time, giving the viewer a global idea of the point in history.

4. The Secular State in France

With the recent events concerning the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the idea of the secular state has been highlighted frequently in the media.

France is a truly secular state in the way that the United States, for example, is not. While the United States enjoys some separation of Church and State, in France, religion is considered, both culturally and politically, to be a private matter. This idea dates back to the French Revolution, when the Church and the State — in this case, the monarchy — were inextricably intertwined. The King was said to be chosen by God, and the clergy held enormous power.

While the Church and State weren’t completely separated at this point in time, the series of revolutions and revolts that would continue throughout the 19th century ensured that, by the 20th century, France was completely secular.

This means that today, in France, it would be unheard of to hear the President bless the French people. On a smaller scale, anyone working for the State, including in French public schools, post offices and police prefectures, is forbidden from wearing any outward sign of religion, including crosses, yarmulkes and religious head coverings such as burqas and turbans.

You can learn much more about France as a secular State simply by reading current events in the newspaper as discussions of Charlie Hebdo continue. To get you started, here are a few interesting articles in French on the topic:

Of course, there’s no need to stop at these topics. The more you learn about France, the better your French will be!

You can read French newspapers and select a topic you’d like to know more about. Head to your local library and check out some books on the topic, or search some trustworthy websites, like France Inter, Le Monde or Le Figaro.

You can also look at the sites of any of the French public news stations, which often have links to recent documentaries and reports relating to current events. And you can always search online for movies and books on your topic of choice.

Some language learning programs can also utilize authentic media to let you learn both the language and bits of French culture. One example is FluentU, which uses a curated library of short French videos organized into topics, including entertainment, science, politics and others. These come with interactive subtitles, flashcards and quizzes to help you learn French in context.

Read, listen, watch…as you learn more about French culture, your French is only getting better!

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