7 Things I’ll never understand about the French

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France

eiffel-tower-after-rain-sunset

I’ve been in France nearly three years now and have made great* strides in understanding the French people, the language and culture and the general day to day. But despite this, there are a few things I don’t think I’ll ever understand about the French (even if I adapt). So here they are…

*depends on your definition of the word

GO!

Do you understand the French? Sometimes the culture is baffling. Here are the top 7 things I’ll never understand about the French (and sometimes the French themselves don’t get it either):

1. When is it bonsoir time?

That magical hour where you switch from saying bonjour to bonsoir is just as elusive as a friendly customer service department. Does bonsoir start at 6 p.m.? When it gets dark? When it is almost dark? I’ve tried all of these and have said bonjour at 6 p.m. in the summer when the sun is still shining just to be greeted with a bonsoir. It’s no big deal but I’d like in on the little piece of knowledge on when it’s time to say bonsoir. (French people seem to not have a hard-and-fast rule on this.)

2. Why do stores close at 7 p.m.? Even on the weekends.

Not sure about you, but I like convenience (only second to being comfortable). So my American self has learned to show up earlier to stores and plan a little better since 11 p.m. grocery store runs don’t exist in France. Nobody’s ever heard of Wawa or 7-11 around here apparently. But let’s be reasonable. I’m a reasonable person. 11 p.m. is late but come on, how about 9 p.m. That’s a reasonable time to close up shop. It allows for those who work to pop in on their way home and for those who eat dinner on the early side to hit up a store or two after dinner. But 7 p.m.? Just nope. And don’t get me started about Sundays. Or lunchtime.

Yes, of course there are exceptions – let me be clear about that — and not every store in every town closes at 7 p.m. But take for example our stroll through Angers last night. It’s a decent-sized city but we were rushed out of Fnac (French Best Buy) at 6:55 p.m. and the doors were being shut at all the stores at 7 p.m. On a Saturday. I just don’t get it. But that doesn’t matter in the least because I live in France so I now play by France’s rules.

french-pharmacy-medicine-boxes

3. Why do you get more than you need at the pharmacy and why can’t they use labels?

Maybe it’s the American in me but it seems awfully wasteful to give someone an entire box of medicine if they only need 3/4 of the pills inside. You see, in France, if the doctor puts you on antibiotics for 7 days and you’re instructed to take 2 pills per day, you don’t just get 14 pills. And you certainly don’t get them in a little child-proof container with a lid complete with your name and instructions all typed up. You get the whole box of pills regardless of the inevitable leftovers and the handwritten instructions will be scrawled on the side of the box. (The pic above is pretty tame and is strangely legible. I guess I threw out all my old boxes with sweet scrawl.)

I think bad penmanship is a prerequisite to be a pharmacist in France or work at the French pharmacy. Seeing a half-legible scrawl crammed into the tiny white space on your medicine box might not be the safest way to instruct a customer on how to take their medication. But what the heck do I know. Anyway, open any French person’s medicine cabinet and you’ll see half empty boxes of all kinds of things. Not even joking.

galette-with-salad

4. Why does the salad come after the meal?

At any given dinner whether you’re at someone’s house or at a restaurant, the salad course is always enjoyed after the main course. The salad is not an appetizer or something to put alongside your main course but a palate-cleansing plate of greens that will always come after you’ve stuffed yourself full of whatever fish or meat was on the menu. Don’t know about you, but I love kicking off my meal with salad. It’ll fill me up a little so I don’t gorge myself on the duck later on and eases you into what’s to come. But in France, expect it after you’re full. Ugh. (The pic above was my friendly-looking galette from last night’s dinner at La Table Ronde complete with a salad. Happy camper here! ;-))

5. Why do you have to pay a tax for owning a TV?

Yeah, I’m serious. If your home has a television set, you pay a tax. See how ridiculous this is? It’s like asking if your home has walls. TVs are ubiquitous these days so when the inspector comes around to verify if you have a TV or not (they have the right to verify if you do indeed have one or not if there’s any question), you should do what Tom did back in his old apartment (I’m serious). Keep the volets drawn (see how useful volets can be?) when it’s TV tax time so the inspector can’t see in from outside — and don’t answer the door if you don’t know who it is. He got away with not paying for a year! And it’s not chump change. How much is the tax, you ask? About 130 euros this year for metropolitan France! Jeezus. It’s called la redevance audiovisuelle and you pay the same fee regardless of how many TVs you own — just one tax per household per year. It apparently supports French public TV stations. What’s next, a toilet tax? Ssshh, don’t give ’em any ideas.

6. Why isn’t banking free?

The French pay for their bank accounts and debit cards and it’s not cheap. For great service, you ask? No, of course not. The banks are always closed and aren’t super helpful anyway (Tom’s card expired in May and it took them a month to send him a new one. Twice actually because they didn’t know what the new PIN was. Yea, I’m still miffed. A debit card is a necessity for daily life in France. Anyway….) A normal debit card will run you a one-time fee of about 20 to 30 euros in France to get and then a basic checking account will be minimum 5 euros/month. Ours is “fancy” I guess and it’s 11. WTF? I love my TD Bank at home. Free checking. Free card.

no screens on french windows

7. Why are there no screens on windows?

My bug bites pretty much explain why I think this is nuts. Screens might not be super pretty but they do serve a purpose. It’s only logical to put screens on windows — but French homes do not have screens. At all. One might deduce that the French aren’t logical… but I digress. Between bugs in the house and bugs biting your skin, screens really are the easiest solution but the French don’t seem to agree. So yup, I’m the house with duct taped screens on the windows.

Do you understand the French? What would you add? And hey Frenchies, what don’t you understand about Americans?

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Comments (34)

  • k_sam

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    Great post, I remember asking myself so many of the same questions in the early days! 🙂 I haven’t found answers to all of them, but here’s a few that might help you out.

    Most stores close early so that empoylees can get home in time to have dinner with their family. The French tend to value family time over profit, so staying open longer just to make a bit more extra money is not something they value as a whole.

    I agree with you about having the salad before the meal in order to help fill you up, but here (and Italy), it comes after because the vinegar in the dressing can affect how the palate perceives wine (and because it is thought that the fiber in the lettuce aids in digestion).

    The TV Tax also seemed dumb to me at first, until I realized that it was for funding the public TV channels (France 2, France 3, France 5, Arte, etc), and helping keep them commercial free – or at least up until recently, now they they have started having commercial breaks, but not nearly at the frequency as in the US. It also serves to pay for the public radio stations, which is why you never see fund-raising telethons or radiothons.

    And having lived on a farm in Bretagne for 5 years and had the “Why no window screens??” convo many-a-time due to all the nasty flies everywhere, the main explanation that I have come up with is that it would prevent people from being able to open and close their manual window shutters. I also think it comes down to the misconception that screens = blocking. The people that I have talked to seem to think they would feel closed in, or that they would block the light/air flow. But it’s mostly because they just haven’t seen American-style screens, and thus don’t realize that you barely even notice they are there.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Are you still in Bretagne? We just got back from the Gulf of Morbihan area. 😉

      Reply

    • david

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      reponse d un francais

      bonsoir pour moi c est quand le soleil se couche

      la fermeture a 19h c est normal pour nous donc ca choque pas ; un systeme plus tardif serais possible ; mais se serai la boite de pandore ouverte donc des abus
      la fermeutre du dimanche c est culturelle ; jour du seigneur et du repas de famille donc pas de course
      particularite ; a paris et region parisenne tout est ouvert le dimanche
      en province les grandes villes certains magazin ouvert

      pour les medicaments : c est un abus du systeme ; notre systeme est mal gerer et gaspil trop
      mais le lobbi des labos pharmacetiques est derriere

      la salade c est vrai que c est en fin de repas
      mais pas d obligation
      c est plus pour le repas de famille qui dure 2h

      l exemple ; en ete une salade en guise de plat

      la taxe tv ; c est une anarque qui ne dit pas son nom
      c est pour paye le service publique televisuel
      mais c est le l arnaque
      la bbc ; tv publique anglaise fait beaucoup mieux avec moins d argent

      control est possible mais rarissime
      95% des francais la payent

      la banque ; c est juste une arnaque de plus

      c est en train de changer avec les banques gratuites sur internet

      oufff….

      les ecrans c est pas dans nos coutumes
      pas besoin chez nous
      sauf peut etre dans le sud de la france

      note ; mort de rire pour les tapettes
      c est vrai que c est marrant mais pas hygiénique

      il existe des appareil qui electrocutent les insectes assez efficace
      surtout quand vous mangez dehors avec un systeme d amploue ;
      la lumiere les attirent est grrrrrrrrrrr…..

      voila pour mes reponses

      site sympa et bien fait….

      Reply

  • Cal-expat

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    ha ha ha!! I just discovered èour blog, and I love it, specially now that I’m in California!

    1/ I have the same issue in California, and I’m getting used to avoid the issue with “have a good one”.
    I got surprised in French rural areas to hear “Bonsoir” as good bye at 9am!

    2/ ok, we’re don’t open stores late or on Sundays (one of the things I love in the US), but it’s called “protection sociale” 😉
    but yeah, it’s soo convenient. I’ve already made 2 late trips to stores after 9pm in 3 months.

    3/ not entirely true. with syrup for kids, you may not have enough (there is always loss on the serynge). And considering the price of medicine… isn’t the yellow box with label over-expensive?

    5/ I’ve never seen anyone acting like Tom! and didn’t know they send agents to control if you own a TV

    6/ banking isn’t free, but seriously: no credit score, no credit cards, only “will be debitted later”. Allowance to have your bank account momentarily under zero. Isn’t that great? oh, and did I mention that savings gives you a rate of a few percent, instead of .01% in the US?

    7/ no screens, but volets are waaay much better that blinds. and windows easier to open in France.

    And don’t even get me started on metrics vs US standard 😉

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      How’s California life treating you lately?
      I will respectfully disagree with you about volets being better than blinds. 😉 But yes the metric system is much less complicated. We should use it in the US

      Reply

  • Punaiz

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    Nice and funny post, again. Thank you.

    For Bonsoir time, it is fully a question of personnal feeling. So it MUST have discrepancies between people, and even for yourself from one day to another, depending on period in year, wheather, and mood.
    so take it as an indicator when you say “bonjour” to someone and he/she responds “bonsoir”: it just means you are still young and fresh and he/she old and warry.
    Than if you are the one with a bonsoir when the other with a bonjour, it is only because this foolish foe is way out of reality.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Yes, I’ve noticed that bonjour/bonsoir time is a matter of personal feeling. It varies from person to person, season, mood, etc. The way you described it was funny hahaha. I’ve said bonjour to people and they reply with a bonsoir. I like being young and fresh lol

      Reply

  • stella

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    If you complain about store closing early, never go up north! In Belgium where I live now, stores arec closing at 18H30 and some at 18H. Even carrefour closes at 20h instead of 22H in France (for the bigger ones) I don’t get that. No stores open on sundays whereas in France some shop are open on sundays (i used to live in Nice and some shop where open on sundays and for sales or christmas)

    For the “redevance télé” I never got that. They say that because of that we have less commercials but we used to have more commercial and the tax to pay. Now we have less in the evening but I think it’s still too much! But I know it’s much better than in USA.

    For the salad after the meal my belgian fiancé would agree with you. I like to have salas after dinner with some cheese. Salad, cheese and wine is soooo good!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Oh gosh, I’ll keep that in mind Stella — mental note to never go up north. Guess I just need to plan my day better. It’s doable just a mental adjustment

      Reply

  • Alan

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    I’m glad I’m not the only one with the whole “bonsoir” question. And screens!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I said bonsoir to someone the other day at 11am. Total slip of the tongue — i knew it was bonjour time — but French people do it too. It’s a mystery for everyone

      Reply

  • Kim

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    Oof the ‘bonsoir’ vs ‘bonjour’ gets me every time! Also, I know ‘salad’ is the word for lettuce, but why can’t side salads contain, you know, more than one vegetable?? Oh, hello lettuce with oil. Again.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Yeah the French salads are pretty good but like you said it’s usually just lettuce and vinaigrette. Carrots and tomatoes would be a nice addition 😉

      Reply

  • Megan

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    Oh man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve thought to myself “it just doesn’t make any sense” about this country, I’d be rich lol. The stores closing early is the one I despise the most. When I first moved here I didn’t understand why people would talk about the “Sunday blues” because I’ve always loved Sundays (at least Stateside) but now that I’ve been here a while, I totally get it. Makes it feel like it’s not a full weekend to me!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Hahaha, I think I’d be rich too. I find myself saying “that just makes no sense” a lot. Still! Agree w/you about stores closing early. Luckily the movie theater in my town is open on Sunday and I’ve found a few other places as well like grocery stores (til 13H). But it’s still weird!

      Reply

  • Maxime

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    Stores close early so that their staffs can enjoy a family/social life like the rest of the population. 😉

    Instead of screens, you could buy a “tapette à mouche” which is a mini squared racquet designed to squash bugs. It’s the national sport at my place, the kids are crazy about it. If you’re not agile enough to squash flying insects, you can try the electric tapette, it’s basically the same thing except that it doesn’t kill bugs by flatting them but by electrocution so you just have to get close enough for the insect to draw the electric arc and self-combust. The latter is not really recommended with very young kids though.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      About the staff enjoying family time: There are always going to be people who want money and will work late/early/on weekends. They make family time around their work schedules. I know people who love picking up extra hours to save for a trip or pay bills or whatever. So although it’s part of French culture, to have family time, I think that if stores had longer hours, there would be no shortage of people volunteering to work. But that’s just my opinion.
      I will have to look for a racquet like you said for this coming summer. Love how it’s the national sport at your place hahaha 😉

      Reply

      • bh

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        Well, there are people who are in dire need for money in India and will sell you a kidney for 2000$ but that doesn’t mean it’s desirable, and that society should accept it. How do you make family time -or even personal- time if one parent works everyday from 7 am to 3 pm and the other one from 2 pm to 12 pm? How about we actually make shopping time around shop employees’ family time?
        And I find it pretty depressing that for another commenter, a full week-end = 2 days of buying stuff.

        Don’t get me wrong, I bought jam and eggs yesterday, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to wait an additional 24 hr and I’d prefer not to have the option to go shopping on sundays.

        As regards the pharmacy, I’ve found that antibiotics boxes contain the number of pills you’ll need so I am quite surprised by your post? Other treatments, like the pastilles Drill on your picture, you take ‘as needed’ and can reuse if you get sore throat later on, so it’s not wasted (and it’s not covered by social security, so if you don’t reuse it, you waste your money, not the taxpayers’). Same for doliprane.

        TV tax, well, compare TF1 and Arte or France 3 and then decide for yourself if it’s really Worth it!

        Reply

        • Diane

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          Hi there, this was just my take as a foreigner in France and of course not the be-all and end-all opinion. First, thanks so much for taking the time to comment! 😉

          Just to respond to a few points. You say you’d prefer to not have the option to go shopping on Sundays. That doesn’t make sense to me. If the option is there but you stay home and never shop on Sundays, it doesn’t affect you. If you can wait 24 hours to buy your goods, cool. Then you wait. But for people who can’t go the next day or only have time on Sunday, the option is there and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to shop on Sunday if you work the other 6 days of the week. There are tons of options in life that we personally don’t use but that are wholly necessary for others.
          Put another way, let’s pick another “option” in life. Like using an ATM. Just an example, but if you never withdraw cash from an ATM after hours (you go into the bank or you write checks or whatever during the day), the option is there for people to go withdraw cash when the bank is closed. Even though you personally never use the ATM, it’s important for that option to still be there for those who need it. If you never use it, no problem. No harm, no foul.

          About meds: I think for some ailments, 10 days of treatment may correspond to the exact number of pills in the box but other times when you only need say 21 pills for the course of your treatment and the box has 30, those 9 aren’t used. Again, depends on the medicine and treatment. Was just pointing out a difference I noticed because prescription medicine is more regulated in the USA and you only get the # of pills you need.

          Reply

  • Diane

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    What a great post. The bonjour/bonsoir thing is a huge mystery, I am sure even they have no answer for that one!
    The Carrefour at Soyaux has hours 09h00 to 21h00 but they are one of a few I agree and Saturday they close at 20h30. Thankfully a lot of places do now stay open over lunch time which they never used to!
    Yes I also always have a surplus of tablets, what a waste.
    My husband likes salad but hates lettuce, so French type salad he does not eat anyway!
    We have always paid a licence for a TV in both the UK and S. Africa so no change for us.
    Banking is a rip off but that has all so changed, they used to charge you eachtime for looking on the internet at your statement, at least that has changed. In S.A. they actually give you a credit, small as it is,i for having a credit in your credit card account, even the UK does not do that.
    Screens would be a great idea, so many flies around here with the neighbour’s sheep.
    Thankfully I have been on metric for years so no changes for me there.
    Have a great week, t’other Diane

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-(
      Someone told me bonsoir at 11 am the other day. And then I messed up and said bonsoir to someone at 11 am. But they were both just slips of the tongue because it’s clearly bonjour time at 11. But yes, still a mystery.

      Reply

  • Sophie

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    We pay a yearly TV fee in Norway, too. That way we have the state channels (which are the best ones) where there isn’t any commercials. I pay it gladly.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      So sorry for the late reply here, could have sworn I replied months ago. Hmm. ;-( The TV fee must be a Europe thing and at least if you’re paying for the good channels and getting something out of it, it seems worthwhile enough. 😉

      Reply

  • Genevieve

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    Hi! I really enjoyed reading this post. I am a South African living in France for 3 years now and still get frustrated with certain things but I suppose it is a small sacrifice to live in a beautiful country like France. Although there are days that I feel like climbing on the next plane out of here…
    A big adjustment for me was the closing of shops on Sundays as we used to do our grocery shop on a Sunday as well as the close from 12h00-14h00 every day for lunch. This still frustrates me, because if I want to go do something around 11h30, I know it is already too late and I do not want to be chased out so then have to wait until 14h00!
    Something I really miss is going out to a restaurant/take out for a good fry up breakfast! It does not exist here sadly!
    There are still many things we ask why about, but in the end we just have to go with it and enjoy the ride…I look forward to reading more of your posts! 🙂

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Genevieve, could have sworn I replied to comments on this post. Apologies for the late reply. Like you, the closing of the shops at lunchtime and on Sundays was a big adjustment and is still a frustration from time to time. And now that you mention it, a hearty breakfast is something I miss. There are no brunch or big breakfast restaurants that’ll make eggs and pancakes and all the good stuff. Thanks again for commenting!

      Reply

  • Anne Maree

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    Love your site, Australian shops close around 5pm & have one night a week that they stay open until 9 pm. Supermarkets are open until around 11pm. It can be quite frustrating when shops have all different closing times. Weekends they close around 4-5pm. Some shop don’t open on Sundays. Anne

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thank you! Yikes, that’s early! Do you mean small mom & pop shops or even big department stores and chain stores close at 5pm? But that’s good that there’s an option one night a week to go late. I think I’d always mix up what place was closing when, but I guess you get used to it. What part of Australia are you in? I’ll get there one day. Closest I’ve been in New Zealand. 😉

      Reply

  • Paloma

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    Your article was funny. About 1#, here is a more difficult/funny one : in the South West (around Toulouse, Pau, Pyrénées, etc…), some people say “Adieux” (adios), instead of “aurevoir”… and some people even say “adieu” for “bonjour/bonsoir” !

    Reply

    • Diane

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      AHHH I would get so confused!! But at least you have options. 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply

  • Vinny

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    I expect the stores close at 7h because they want to have a life.

    Reply

  • Jo-Anne

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    I think it is easier to just say hi regardless of the time of day, shops here in Australia shut at 5 pm Monday to Friday except on Thursday night when we have late night shopping and they close at 9pm, except for supermarkets which usually close between 9 and midnight 7 days a week. On the weekend most stores close between 4 and 5 pm.
    Jo-Anne recently posted…Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    Reply

  • Virginie

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    Je suis Française et je te rassure je ne sais pas non plus quand commence le bonsoir et pour ce qui est de la salade, je la demande tjs avec mon plat
    Je découvre ton blog et ton point de vue est plutôt drôle et sympa.
    Bienvenue en France (même si apparemment ça fait un petit moment que tu es la)

    Reply

  • Jean

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    1- Bonsoir time is at 6:00pm, when it’s dark

    2- Because we have a different conception of life then the US people. We, French people, think there is a time to work and a time to live. We eat between 7pm and 9pm. We do not want everybody to work non stop, everybody need time for living. If you want to buy something, buy it before the shop closes, it’s easy as that 😉

    5- Because the main channel television gets money from the state. this money came from a tax, simply.

    6- Ask the financial system…

    Reply

  • Guillaume

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    Hi Diane,

    I’m going to write in french because my english level doesn’t yet allow me to give a fully comprehensive answer to the questions you listed here

    2) La raison pour laquelle l’Etat français a fait en sorte d’interdire ou réglementer le travail dominical (= le dimanche) et fait en sorte que la plupart des magasins ferment vers 19h est la suivante : c’est pour favoriser la vie de famille, placer la famille au delà de considérations strictement économiques. Quand on sort du travail à 21h, il est compliqué d’avoir du temps avec ses enfants le soir, de les éduquer autrement qu’avec l’aide d’une nounou.
    Je ne dis pas que c’est la meilleure solution, c’est simplement comme ça.

    5) La redevance télévisuelle est un impôt dédié, qui sert à financer le fonctionnement des chaînes publiques, qui permet de ne pas dépendre de la publicité (pas de publicité sur le service publique après 20h par exemple), et de sorte favoriser l’indépendance du traitement de l’information sur les chaînes publiques en rendant son fonctionnement plus autonome et indépendant

    Reply

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