I first started to think about this subject when I realized my students were misunderstanding a very important French cultural point. When I said “elle a reçu une bonne éducation” (she received a good education), they all thought I meant “she had school diplomas”.
This is not the case.
In French “la bonne education” refers to “the proper education”, middle to upper-class education. So it’s not a question of school diplomas, but rather family education, and is very much linked to social class.
So now that you understand what this expression means, I’m going to do my best to try to explain what this “bonne éducation” refers to, and what the “French bourgeoisie” is. I know what I am talking about, I was born “une bourgeoise”, raised in a middle-upper class “famille bourgeoise de Paris” (I traveled a lot since then, and broke with many of the rules!). Yet, explaining all this is not an easy task, and is highly subjective, so you may want to take it all in with a grain of salt!
Furthermore, let me insist that all French people are not bourgeois. But since it’s a notion many of my students have trouble understanding, I thought it would be worth writing about.
1 – French Bourgeoisie = refined discretion and proper social networks
Are for me the key ideas.
Being bourgeois comes with a lot of rules and responsibilities. You are always in the spotlight, representing your family, your social class. You have to be prepared, proper and ready at all times. And it all needs to look effortless and natural. The way you live your life is thought to be a direct result from the education you received from your family: it should be deeply ingrained into you, and there is just no other acceptable way.
The bourgeois follow very strict codes, in particular when it comes to politeness, how to dress, house decoration, table manners and hosting rules. I’ll describe them in details below. They keep to themselves, choosing friends in the right circles, and marrying within the same social class (or up).
Entertaining is a big part of the social lives of Bourgeois. They have dinner parties, organize bridge or tennis tournaments at home… Everything has to be perfect and lots of efforts are invested in “showing off” to guests. Understanding these codes will prove extremely useful when traveling to France and/or to understand French culture.
2 – Historically, what is “la bourgeoisie” française?
La bourgeoisie is a social class that developed in the Middle Ages when the cities expanded (the cities were then called “bourg”). Before that, there were only 2 social classes in France: the peasants and the nobles.
- The peasants had little or no formal education and worked all their lives, which were usually short.
- The nobles, on the contrary, had a life of leisure. Well, some of them took good care of their farms and were like businessmen. But many of them did nothing but play. They knew about the arts, music, literature… enjoyed gourmet foods and wines… Children had tutors… so in the end, that social class held the most of the cultural knowledge of France.
When cities developed, peasants started to sell their crops to the people there: they became merchants and artisans. They started to have money and wanted a different life for their children. They got closer to the nobles (who in turn were interested in the money this new class held, especially after the Revolution when so many nobles lost it all), and learned from them how to enjoy the arts and culture.
For more info, read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourgeoisie
3 – Different kind of bourgeois in France
So, through time, different kinds of bourgeois appeared:
- Parisian bourgeois (usually referred as “la crème de la crème” of bourgeois… Pretty rich, having been so for a long time and very close to the nobles, some having married among them).
- Bourgeois de province” (not “ProvEnce”, the South of France, but “provInce”: anything but Paris): families of doctors, lawyers etc… that come from simple origins but have accessed to the level of bourgeois through schools and friends, or marriage.
- “La petite bourgeoisie” which is mostly self-employed people like shopkeepers and artisans who also want their share of it all.
All these people follow more or less strictly the codes of bourgeoisie.
They nowadays are mostly opposed to the blue collars working class, “les ouvriers”, and farmers “les paysans” who don’t usually share the same education, taste for culture, nor codes. The worse for the bourgeois would be to feel (or look) “déclassé” (low class) or “vulgaire”. It’s like we are still in the Middle Ages, and they are trying to hide from the Nobles their Peasants origins, so afraid someone would guess their big secret…
Through time, “La noblesse” (nobility) and “les bourgeois” married among each other. I am not really sure if there are nowadays many differences between the codes of the bourgeoisie and the ones of the nobles… It seems to me, however, that the few noble people I know truly are… noble. At heart I mean. And often a bit naïve since they didn’t learn much street smart. Also, they don’t care what others think of them since they are at the top of the French refinement. They can afford to be marginal (it may even start a trend!!)
To understand a bit better what the relation of the people was once with the nobles, I strongly suggest you watch the movies “Ridicule” de Patrice Leconte.
4 – A typical “French bourgeoise”
A good example of “femme bourgeoise” is Valérie Lemercier in her role of Béatrice Goulard de Montmirail in the movie “Les Visiteurs”.
Formerly from noble class (the “de” in “de Montmirail” is a marker of nobility), her family lost their money and had to sell the castle, and Béatrice married into bourgeoisie (maybe he was rich ?) Monsieur “Goulard”, a dentist. The way she dresses is very “Bon Chic Bon Genre” (“BCBG” for short meaning proper chic, proper look – note this has nothing to do with the brand…), the way she speaks (her voice, social “accent” and the expression she uses), all of her screams “bourgeoise”.
Valérie Lermercier is well known for interpreting the stereotypical “bourgeoise française” on screen.
5 – How many bourgeois in France?
I am not sure. I looked all over the internet, but couldn’t find any numbers. So I asked around me (to about 40 people). The answer was that “we” think la bourgeoisie represents 15 to 30 % of the population of France today but it’s a hard number to settle on since there are many interpretations of what/who is bourgeois. (if you have an exact figure, I would love for you to share it with me)
6 – What are the codes of the French bourgeoisie?
Of course, it all starts with politeness. Table manner and etiquette follow strict rules, and a certain eloquence in French is required. Some expressions are acceptable (like “je vous en prie/ je t’en prie” to say you’re welcome), others are not (like “de rien”). Some mistakes are accepted (like using “c’est” instead of “ce sont”) others are not (like saying “c’est la soeur à Pierre” instead of saying “c’est la soeur DE Pierre” – oh la la, so lower class ;-)
The bourgeois usually sticks with “vous” longer, although “tu” is possible but not automatic. Learn more about the true usage of “vous” and “tu” in my politeness audio lesson.
They are usually quick to judge: “Ça ne se fait pas” (this is not proper) is a saying that comes back often. What is proper and what is not? This could lead to a big debate, even among bourgeois, but one thing is certain: they all think their family holds the ultimate and unique “savoir vivre” (etiquette).
And all these codes, they pass on to their children: constantly correcting them when they speak, offering etiquette guidance, making sure the kids visit museums, read classic literature.
7 – How do French bourgeois dress?
L1 + L2
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Think Polo Ralf Lauren, Anne Klein, maybe the Gap. In France, bourgeois brands are Cyrillus, Lacoste, Rodier, newly Zadig & Voltaire; Petit Bateau, Bonpoint, Tartine et Chocolat, Jacadi for kids…
In other words, the look is very classical. Clean. The opposite of gaudy. Depending on how much money you have, brands will be more or less an option. But it’s possible to have a bourgeois look with a small budget (the supermarket chain “Monoprix” has understood this perfectly).
Colors are usually pastel, or traditional (navy, white, burgundy, black, beige, grey…).
Jeans are OK but the classic kind, darker wash preferred (we even iron them… the horror!!!)
The aim is to look like everybody else in this social class, to fit in and show from the first look that you belong, that you understand the codes.
Accessories are VERY important. For them, you’d break the piggy bank, since they represent markers. Un carré Hermès (silk scarf) with Grandma’s pearl necklace is A MUST have. The Hermès “chain d’ancre” bracelet is quite common as well. Vuitton or Chanel bags, Tod’s shoes… Burberry raincoats and the classic check scarf for the winter.
Make-up is minor, delicate, not too obvious. So is the hairstyle and color (you can color it but it has to look like it could be natural).
Classic perfumes include Chanel numéro 5, Miss Dior, Ivoire de Balmain, O de Lancôme… and Eau Sauvage de Dior and Habit Rouge de Guerlain for men.
Read more about how to dress in Paris.
8 – Typical French Bourgeois Houses
Its appearance is definitely more important than how functional it is. Many bourgeois people prefer to live in old, hopefully, refurbished houses or apartments. Some are lucky to have inherited their places (especially if you live in Paris where buying is so expensive). Many have inherited at least some antique furniture, art pieces, and Grandma’s silverware.
The bourgeois tends to his property carefully and will expect you to comment on the well-chosen decoration. Gardening is quite fashionable as well.
Often, bourgeois families will share a countryside house, in Normandy or Brittany, where everybody gathers up during the school vacations. For Parisians, a weekend house in the nearby countryside is rather habitual (this is actually a picture of my parent’s country house, in “les Yvelines”, 45 minutes away from Paris).
9 – French bourgeoise Education
So, on top of proper etiquette, what else is required of a bourgeois? They usually have received an extensive “general education”: learned to play an instrument as a kid, swim well, ride a bike, have been on horses.
They know about classical arts and music, literature. Some show a real interest for the arts and are patrons of contemporary artists (but it’s a bit “risqué”). They have traveled a bit, but not necessarily a lot (otherwise they would be more open-minded).
It’s a must to attend school until at least “le baccalauréat”. Children attend private schools which teach them general education, Catholic religion and follow the proper etiquette and codes. This also ensures the kids will meet their friends among other bourgeois.
Then higher studies for men, the French equivalent of the ivy leagues, “Les Grandes Ecoles”. But it’s still very much Ok to marry young, have kids and stay home for women…
The kids will be named Marie-Charlotte, Anne-Sophie or Josephine for the girls, Charles-Edouard, Hughes or Aurélien for the boys.
10 – Religion of the French bourgeois
Catholic of course, since France is traditionally a Catholic country. Although many bourgeois don’t go to mass regularly, children are baptized, do their “communion” and “confirmation” and a church wedding is still an absolute must. For appearance sakes and traditions most of the time.
11 – Sports the French bourgeoisie practices
Golf. Tennis. Bicycling lightly through the French countryside at the weekend house (nothing too sporty though, just a fun and healthy way to do your groceries…). Swimming in Bretagne in the family summer house. Skiing in the winter in Switzerland for the wealthier. And for the poshier, dancing in organized “rallies” where your parents are sure you’ll date class appropriate young adults.
And playing bridge (Ah? It’s not a sport ? Are you sure ???)
12 – The French bourgeois’ “nemesis”
“Le nouveau riche” (newly rich) is the enemy!
I know, it makes little sense, but “new” money is not well accepted in France… You are supposed to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, otherwise, how could you know about the timeless value of the codes???
Speaking about money is vulgar, showing you have some is even more vulgar. Discretion is a must.
There is very little room for thinking outside the box, or being marginal either. “Les bourgeois” feel secure among themselves, they don’t want to mix, and make sure they make friends and marry within people of the same class (or up).
The only accepted exceptions are artists, who are generally well accepted in any class, even if they are different. They will make for a fun distraction in a “soirée bourgeoise”.
13 – The new French bourgeois: le bobo
But of course, everything evolves. Now, a new kind of bourgeois has emerged: “le bobo, or bourgeois-bohème” :-)
These are children of traditional bourgeois, who have rebelled in part against the rigidity of the education of their class, yet conserving some parts of it (often the etiquette part) and passing it on to their own children.
Many of these bobos are hipsters, voluntarily mixing traditional elements with mass culture ones (such as an original 19th-century painting next to a Star War vessels collection).
14 – Conclusion
Far from being a disappearing class, the French bourgeoisie endures since its deepest root lays in children education which is passed on from one generation to the next.
To this day, they hold a big part of the French cultural patrimony and “savoir vivre” (etiquette), and may very well be responsible for this “je ne sais quoi” that makes the French so… French to the rest of the world!