Differences Between the North and South of France

Although continental France is only about the size of Texas, it is still the largest country in Western Europe. France is a country full of diverse varieties of accents, culture, and ways of life. I’ve had the privilege of living in both Northern and Southern France, and during my time here I have been able to speak with French people as well as with other foreigners, in addition to drawing a few conclusions of my own, about the differences between the two sides. (Please do keep in mind, that these are my opinions, drawn from my own experiences.)

Below you will find a map of France. I made it a point to draw the line down the middle the best I could– between La Rochelle and Geneva, Switzerland (there may be a few cities that “should be” on the other side of the line, but I did the best I could. I also circled the three places where I lived. Check out the differences I have found below!

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1. Although France’s weather is not black and white as it touches both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as various mountain ranges, the south, in general, has much better weather than the north. This fact in it of itself influences a lot of the list below.

2. French people all over are wonderfully nice (I was even published about it!). However, I find people in the north to be friendlier and less superficial than people in the south. Although people in the north may tend to be a bit more initially reserved, they quickly become so friendly when you get to know them! On the other hand, southerners are upfront quite nice, but it is often only surface level.

Let me explain: because the weather in the south is so much better, people naturally spend more time outside, and therefore consequently meet and interact with more people on a daily basis. However, it’s sometimes hard to spend quality time with so many people, so the relationships are not always as deep. In the north on the other hand, people spend much more time inside because the weather is not so good during the winter, and as a consequence they spend time with fewer people. However, the people they do spend time with they are very close to. So, although it takes a much longer time to meet people in the north, once you’re friends, you’re friends for life, and you’ll tend to have long, meaningful relationships. (But, of course this is not to say that all people in the south of France are fake, nor do they have less meaningful relationships!)

3. I am cat-called and harassed on the street a billion times more in the south than I ever was in the north.

4. People tend to be less former in the north. I am tutoyée almost immediately, by absolutely everyone, from bosses to students to tutoring clients to shopkeepers to random people on the street. In the south, even after 9 months, I was still vouvoyée, which I found to be quite odd!

5. Life’s pace in the south, especially when it comes to work, is much slower and more leisurely. I guess the best example is that of businesses in my city here in the south being closed for lunch, and then by 7 PM for dinner, and every Sunday. Although Sundays in Normandy and Valenciennes were generally quiet, I do not remember as many shops being closed and having as limited of hours.

6. This may be contrary to the “leisurely lifestyle” but many French people here in the south (as well as Paris) drive like absolute maniacs! People speed through the streets only to slam the breaks at a stoplight; it is so annoying! Overall I much prefer the drivers in the north.

7. The weather also influences cuisine in France! Although each region has their own specialties, the southern-style cuisine uses a lot of vegetables and oil, because the sun shines all year round and as a result there are always markets selling vegetables. On the other hand, the northern part of France uses a lot of butter in its cuisine. Although red wine is drank everywhere in France, the south of France is full of rosé wine, while the north is more known for its beer and cider, mostly due to Belgian and English influences. Both parts of France where I have lived have been on or near the sea (English Channel and the Mediterranean), so there is a lot of sea food entwined in both diets.

8. I’ve noticed that men and boys in the south give bisous (kisses) to other men and boys more frequently than I have seen in the north, where handshaking is the norm between men (think of the influences from the touchy-feely Italians versus the prim and proper British).

9. Just like in the United States, French accents and the overall language vary by region and are quite distinguishable from the north to the south. People in the north generally speak a bit faster, and their pronunciation is generally more what you will learn in school. There are also several dialects in the north, such as Brittanique and  ch’tis, which is a special accent sometimes heard in Haut-de-France, the most northern part of France.

In the south people tend to speak slower but the accent is much more pronounced– people sometimes say the ends of their words differently. For example, in the north, people pronounce pain (bread) like “pa-eh” where as in the south it is said like “pa-en.” Each region also has its own phrases and slang.

10. The styles of houses are very different. Houses in the south, specifically in the Côte d’Azur, are very colorful (in fact in Nice it is a law that houses have to be painted a certain color- red, orange, yellow, pink, for example, in order to keep the city looking colorful.) Houses in the southwest of France, near Toulouse, are built with a combination of wood and brick, a style specific to the region. In the north of France, houses are built with wood or stone, but in a very different Nomadic or Germanic style. Lille and Valenciennes, however also have many houses made of red bricks. The roofs in the northern half of France are usually black, and make from slates, whereas in the southern part of France, the roofs are typically orange and made from clay tiles.

I am asked a lot if I prefer the north or the south of France. Frankly, it’s a really hard question for me to decide. Both of my experiences are very different and irreplaceable. I love Normandy, I love the Côte d’Azur, I love Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and I love Paris. But I think overall, the north is where I’m meant to be.

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Caen, Normandie, 2013

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Paris, 2013

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Nice, Côte d’Azur, 2013

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Lille, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, 2014

Have you noticed any cultural differences between the north and the south? Do you agree or disagree with anything I have listed? Leave me a comment below.

Bisous,

Dana

29 thoughts on “Differences Between the North and South of France

  1. I think Lyon may be somewhat transitional. In many ways the architecture is perhaps somewhat Southern, but overall it’s winters are much colder than the South, colder indeed than Paris. Lyon gets around 6 in January whereas Marseille or Nice can reach 15, and Bordeaux and Toulouse will typically reach 10.
    Lyon is of course near the Alps and somewhat further north than even Bordeaux.
    Lyon is also much bigger, even than Marseille (urban area) and hence somewhat busier, more modern/tall buildings and more business focused with areas like finance being big industries. Therefore it is less laid back than the South and more like north in that respect.
    Perhaps more like French-speaking Switzerland than either Northern or Southern France, but I’ve not made it across to Switzerland as of yet.

      1. Sounds like the differences between the North and South of the U.S.A.
        One Question: I was taught Parisian French. Will I be understood in the North of France?
        Thanks for your input. It was very helpful.

  2. There some differencies between the south-east and sout-west, for example Bordeaux is not the same as Narbonne ( weather, food etc.)

  3. For me, what has stood out the very most between the North (whether northwest like Brittany, north-central like Nord Pas-de-Calais/Picardy or northeast like Alsace) and the South, also from west to east, are the roofs. In the northern regions, high-pitched and other types of attic roofs like mansards are very prominent. With those attic roofs come many dormer windows and prominent chimneys. After that, it can vary in the North as you go from west to east. In the northwest, you see a lot of granite masonry and dark gray slate roofs. In the north-center, red and brown brick like in Belgium and suburban London dominates, along with roofs like those you see a lot in Flanders and the Netherlands (Flemish gables, flat Flemish orange tiles)–just like the rowhouses, which also reminds you of Belgium/Netherlands and England. Normandy seems to be a transitional region between Brittany and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Normandy near Brittany looks a lot like Brittany (granite) and Normandy near Picardy/Nord Pas-de-Calais look a bit like those places (brick). And Normandy in between has the Pays d’Auge half-timbered look that is uniquely Norman. Then in the northwest, a lot of German-looking half-timbered architecture. And you get a lot of round, brownish roof tiles, which I guess you find a lot in Germany.
    Meanwhile, in the southern regions, except along the Pyrenees, you have a lot of low-pitched roofs with the canal-shaped red terracotta roofs, like you see throughout Southern European countries. So no dormer windows when you look up. I do like that Mediterranean look, but I must say, I love the high-pitched roofs with dormer windows of the north. Somewhere in the center of France, both styles slowly come together and either merge or alternate, not exactly in a straight line though. Climate seems to have played a big role in the regional, traditional architecture of France. By the way, in the Basque Country in the southwestern edge of France, the regional look is very different from the Mediterranean style, but in general, I find the “south” to be more homogeneous than the northern regions, only that in the very southeastern edge next to Liguria/Italy, it’s much more colorful.

    1. I totally and completely agree! The roofs really do distinguish the style and overall way of life / vibe of the region. It really is fascinating! Thanks for your comment!

      1. You are welcome, Dana. It was very nice to come across your blog while doing a search on Google on southern France. I hope you and others caught my mistake in the middle of my response when I said “Then in the northwest, a lot of German-looking half-timbered architecture.” I meant to type, northeast, not northwest. Alsace is in the northeast of France along the French-German border, of course.

        By the way, I got a chance to confirm how “simple” and kind the people of Nord-Pas-de-Calais can be, when I was there in September of this year. Probably the nicest people in all of France. And yet the region and it’s people can have a bad reputation within France as gastronomically uncultured, alcoholics, unemployed, etc. Yet that region of France provided a lot of energy (i.e. mining) for France in the 19th and early 20th century, well before nuclear energy became the primary source of electricity in France. Watch Les Corons by Pierre Bachelet (original singer) but also by Les Stentors (beautiful adaptation of Bachelet’s song) on youtube. Les Corons are the low-income, brick, row houses built near mining sites in Nord Pas de Calais in the 1800s, which were built for miners and their families.

  4. I really enjoyed this post about the differences between the south and the north. I visited Nord-Pas-De-Calais this autumn for the very first time, and I was completely blown off my feet by the kindness and generosity of the people. We stayed in a little village called Wissant (apparently it’s a surfers paradise) and we had one of the most relaxing holidays ever. Reading your opinion on this just brought back sweet memories :). I just wrote a little article on our experience in Wissant, in case you’re interested: https://mintandcopper.wordpress.com/

    Also, just subscribed! Can’t wait to read more from you 🙂

  5. Hi !!
    I’m From North France and i was glad about your article, i find it really true and I recognize my culture in what you say, i totally agree !
    thank you 🙂

  6. France is a very diverse country. The French state has done all it can by trying to eliminate the various cultural and linguistic differences by assimilation. You lived in Normandy but I bet you did not hear people speak Norman. One century ago that would not have been the case. The French language is not the only romance language in France. And the other Romance languages are not dialects of French or patois. Norman has for example a much older tradition as a language of literature than French. When Normandy conquered England in 1066 the Norman language flourished in Anglo-Norman literature such as the Roman de Brut and Roman de Rou (Rou being the Norman name of Rollo AKA Hrolfur the Viking founding father of Normandy) etc. Yet many people in Normandy have deep contempt for their own language, that they are loosing, due to the fact that they have been thought by the French Republic that French is a real language while Norman (and other languages in France are not). And yet they will do nothing to search for the truth. Instead they will lift their hands in the air, blow air strongly out of their mouths and walk away saying “n’importe quoi”. The hypocrite stand of the French Republic against what they believe to be Anglo-Saxon globalization is ironic. Specially considering that the French Republic is one of the few European nations not to have ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority languages and is destroying the various languages inside it’s own borders. I have come to the conclusion that being Norman for me matters more than being French as I have grown to dislike the mentality taking over in France. We in Normandy have strong Scandinavian and English influences. Normandy was created & colonized by Scandinavians and we were connected with England for centuries when Normans took possession of that country (as can be seen in all the Norman monuments there, the Tower of London being one of the most famous example). I would suggest to you to find material related to the Norman language and culture so to appreciate more the rich heritage we have that is being destroyed in the name of French assimilation. I must ad that cider is not an influence from England. It is an influence we and our Breton neighbours got from the Basques. However Norman cider will always be better than Breton cider not to mention that the Breton lambig can not compete with our Calva. I do like the Bretons though even if they think that the Mont is theirs ahah.

    1. Yes, it’s a shame that the French state focuses on everyone being the same instead of embracing those cultural differences. That’s one of the things I love about the country so much. Thanks for the information!

  7. Bonjour! Je suis une française du sud ouest (Carcassonne).
    Il est vrai que les gens du nords sont tout de meme plus sympatique que ceux du sud! Dans le sud , les gens se mefient plus de l etranger alors que dans le nord, il l accepte plus rapidement!
    Je ne sais pas si vous avez egalement remarqué une difference physique entre les gens du nord et les gens du sud de la France? Dans le sud nous avons plus tendance à etre brun aux yeux noirs alors que dans le nord, ils sont plus blonds aux yeux bleus! Il y a egalement une grande difference culturelle. Dans le sud on est plus traditionnelle alors que dans le nord ils sont plus “moderne”. Mais il est vrai que, que se soit dans le nord ou dans le sud, ou meme au centre la France est SUBLIME!
    Je vous embrasse en esperant que notre pays vous offrira de belle decouverte encore!

    1. Coucou!! Merci bien de votre commentaire!! Oui j’ai aussi remarqué ça! Peut être c’est grâce aux frontières belge, espagnole, italienne, etc?
      J’ai bien aimé ma vie au sud mais j’adore le nord aussi, même que le temps n’est pas si agréable !!

      Bisous bisous !

  8. You could also go into how the North is industrial while the South is more agrarian. The South has a bigger problem with immigrants and is more outwardly racist than the North. The South is home to an extreme conservative political party…wait, am I talking about the US or France? I’m pretty sure you could overlay most of your generalizations as well onto the US and still have it be accurate. Isn’t it amazing how climate influences culture?

  9. I always was told people in the south are nicer, and I think that is probably true when you compare them to Parisiens. I enjoy this post a lot!! Also I live in the Orléans-Tours area and find the French people here to be some of the nicest I’ve ever met.

    1. I met a lot of nice French people in the south, but I think they are friendlier up here in Nord-Pas-De-Calais, almost in subtle ways, like they use “tu” right away, and ask more questions. 🙂

  10. I think you look at home in all of the photos, but happiest in Paris? Maybe that’s just “tourist” happiness if that makes sense:)

    1. Haha thanks! I’m not sure where I feel most at home– I created a little life for me in both parts of France, but the city girl in me still screams PARIS. So, I guess we’ll see. Maybe it will happen one day. 🙂

  11. It’s cool to hear your review about the South since I’ve never lived there. For me, it’s hard to read this with “the North”, since that’s my department & it’s so different from Normandy, as you could see when you came to visit.

    A few things I’d add about the North for you and anybody interested — in the Nord pas de Calais, the people are considered to be some of the nicest in all of France (as seen in Bienvenue chez les Chtis). I’m glad that you’ve found southerners to be nice because that is definitely not their reputation, and I have mixed feelings about the ones I’ve met. Men & boys biz in the North too, and don’t forget our bright red brick houses. My roof is black slate and clay tile.

    I wanted to add to the accent topic too because there are just so many! Even when we go to our beach house in Picardie, I feel like people speak differently. Accents from North to South are different, but even from one department to another. In Lille I wouldn’t say we speak fast at all, but it’s definitely a different style from Paris or Normandy, Picardie or the East.

    I’m not sure what to think about traditional/conservative regions, never really thought of it as a north/south thing really! I guess this differs based on where you are (small town? countryside? city?) and what you’re doing. Caen, in my experience, was extremely traditional (as a teaching assistant), and Lille is less so (as a freelancer/professional), but just north of Lille in my primarily Islamlic neighborhood, people are very conservative. There is a big network of Catholic schools and to my surprise I have some friends who are actually practicing a religion and not just “Catholic by tradition”, if you will.

    And racism. Sigh. You know what it’s been like for me here, “this isn’t your neighborhood, go home.” I don’t get cat-called per se, but racism is definitely alive here in any way you can imagine. This is where the FN has their biggest following, if I’m not mistaken (at least that’s what the people around me are telling me!).

    So here’s a question, Miss Dana — if you could choose your next region, which one would it be? 🙂

    1. Thanks Amber for your insight! I actually added a a lot of your info to the post. You’re totally right that Normandy and Pas-de-Calais can be completely different! It’s so hard to generalize and compare when there are both similarities and a world of differences! It’s hard for me to decide between the two because I love the north of France but I also love the Cote d’Azur. Can’t I just group all of those areas into one place? xoxo

  12. I think the Bretons would be upset if they knew you left out their language! 😉 Like you said, I think it’s hard to group so many different regional differences all together, as each region in France is really unique. I have yet to live in the South or spend much time there, but even the differences between Troyes and Lille surprise me (like… pretty much no beer in Troyes. I miss it), despite Troyes still being “northern.” So I can only imagine all the differences from two opposite sides of the country!

    1. Hey Laura !

      You’re totally right and I added it in there. I’ve never lived as close to the “middle” of France as you, but it looks so beautiful ! Thanks for your comments =)
      xo

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