Difference between revisions of "France"
Revision as of 14:20, 16 October 2013
France is a country located in Western Europe. Clockwise from the north, France borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland to the east, Italy to the south-east and Spain to the south-west, across the Pyrenees mountain range (the small country of Andorra lies in between the two countries). The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south of France, with the Principality of Monaco forming a small enclave. To the west, France has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline, while to the north lies the English Channel, across which lies the last of France's neighbours, England (part of the United Kingdom).
France has been the world's most popular tourist destination for over twenty years (81.9 million in 2007) and it's geographically one of the most diverse countries in Europe. Its cities contain some of the greatest treasures in Europe, its countryside is prosperous and well tended and it boasts dozens of major tourist attractions, like Paris, the French Riviera, the Atlantic beaches, the winter sport resorts of the French Alps, the castles of the Loire Valley, Brittany and Normandy. The country is renowned for its gastronomy (particularly wines and cheeses), history, culture and fashion.
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint Exupéry, from The Little Prince
A lot of variety, but temperate winters and mild summers on most of the territory, and especially in Paris. Mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean and in the southwest (the latter has lots of rain in winter). Mild winters (with lots of rain) and cool summers in the northwest (Brittany). Cool to cold winters and hot summer along the German border (Alsace). Along the Rhône Valley, occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral. Cold winters with lots of the snow in the Mountainous regions: Alps, Pyrenees, Auvergne.
When to travel
If possible, try to avoid French school holidays and Easter, hotels are very likely to be overbooked and road traffic awful.
Winter gets very cold, sometimes freezing. Make sure to bring appropriate clothing to keep you warm while visiting.
Hotels are very likely to be overbooked and road traffic awful during the 1 May, 8 May, 11 Nov, Easter Weekend, Ascension weekend too.
France has been populated since the Neolithic period. The Dordogne region is especially rich in prehistoric caves, some used as habitation, others are temples with remarkable paintings of animals and hunters, like those found at Lascaux.
Rise and fall of the Roman empire
Written History began in France with the invasion of the territory by the Romans, between 118 and 50 BC. Starting then, the territory which is today called France was part of the Roman Empire, and the Gauls (name given to local Celts by the Romans), who lived there before Roman invasions, became accultured "Gallo-romans".
With the fall of the Roman empire, what was left were areas inhabited by descendants of intermarriages between gallo-romans and "barbaric" easterners (Mainly the Franks, but also other tribes like the "burgondes").
The legacy of the Roman presence is still visible, particularly in the southern part of the country where Roman circuses are still used for bullfights and rock and roll shows. Some of the main roads still follow the routes originally traced 2,000 years ago, and the urban organisation of many old town centres still transcript the cardo and the decumanus of the former Roman camp (especially Paris). The other main legacy was the Catholic Church which can be, arguably, considered as the only remnant of the civilization of that time
Clovis, who died in 511, is considered as the first French king although his realm was not much more than the area of the present Ile de France, around Paris. Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800, was the first strong ruler. He united under his rule territories which extend today in Belgium, Germany and Italy. His capital was Aix-la-Chapelle (now in Germany, known as Aachen).
The country was under attack by the Vikings who came from the north and navigated upstream the rivers to plunder the cities and abbeys, it was also under attack from the south by the Muslim Saracens who were established in Spain. The Vikings were given a part of the territory (today's Normandy) in 911 and melted fast in the Feudal system. The Saracens were stopped in 732 in Poitiers by Charles Martel, grand father of Charlemagne, a rather rough warrior who was later painted as a national hero.
Starting with Charlemagne, a new society starts to settle, based on the personal links of feudalism. This era is named middle age. Although generally seen as an era of stagnation, it can more be described as a very complex mix of periods of economic and cultural developments (Music and poems of the Troubadours and Trouveres, building of the Romanantic, then Gothic cathedrals), and recessions due to pandemic disease and wars.
In 987, Hughes Capet was crowned as king of France ; he is the root of the royal families who later governed France. In 1154 much of the western part of France went under English rule with the wedding of Alienor d'Aquitaine to Henry II (Count of Anjou, born in the town of Le Mans). Some kings of the Plantagenet dynasty are still buried in France, the most famous being Richard I, of Walter Scott's fame, and his father Henry II, who lies in the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The struggle between the English and French kings between 1337 and 1435 is known as the Hundred Years War and the most famous figure, considered as a national heroine, is Joan of Arc.
The beginning of the XVIth century saw the end of the feudal system and the emergence of France as a "modern" state with its border relatively close to the present ones (Alsace, Corsica, Savoy, the Nice region weren't yet French). Louis XIV who was king from 1643 to 1715 (72 years) was probably the most powerful monarch of his time. French influence extended deep in western Europe, its language was used in the European courts and its culture was exported all over Europe.
That era and the following century also saw the expansion of France on the other continents. This started a whole series of wars with the other colonial empires, mainly England (later Britain) and Spain over the control of North America.
The French Revolution started in 1789, leading to the creation of the Republic. Although this period was also fertile in bloody excesses it was, and still is, a reference for many other liberation struggles.
Napoléon reunited the country but his militaristic ambition which, at first, made him the ruler of most of western Europe were finally his downfall. In 1815 he was defeated in Waterloo (Belgium) by an alliance of British and Prussian forces. He is still revered in some Eastern European countries as its armies and its government brought with them the thinkings of the French philosophers.
France went back to monarchy and another revolution in 1848 which allowed a nephew of Napoleon to be elected president and then become emperor under the name of Napoléon III. The end of the XIX century was the start of the industrialization of the country, the development of the railways but also the start of the bitter wars with Prussia and later Germany.
20th and 21st centuries
1905 saw the separation of the Church from the State. This was a traumatic process, especially in rural areas. The French state carefully avoids any religious recognition. Under a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy the law forbids French students and civil servants from displaying any sign explicitly showing their religion. This policy applies to wearing Christian crosses, and has recently been applied to the Muslim hijab (and has been copied in countries like Tunisia and Turkey). In the early 21st century, statistics for Church going and belief in God are among the lowest in Europe.
World War I (1914 -18) was a disaster for France, even though the country was ultimately a victor. A significant part of the male workforce had been killed and disabled and a large part of the country and industry destroyed. World War II (1939 - 45) also destroyed a number of areas.
Since the end of WWII France went through a period of reconstruction and prosperity came back with the development of industry. France and Germany were at the start of the Treaties which eventually became the European Union. One of the most visible consequence being the introduction in 2002 of the Euro (€), the common currency of sixteen European countries.
In 2010, France is a republic with a President elected for a 5-year term. Some current main issues are the further integration of the country into the EU and the adoption of common standards for the economy, defence, and so on.
The ban on religious symbols of 15 March 2004 in public schools is an application of French policy of laïcité (secularism) under which religious symbols such as Muslim veil, Jewish Kippah and Sikh turban has been banned from schools. This has meant that the guarantees for freedom of religion have been curtailed for faith groups in France. Although France is extremely safe, still anyone from an openly religious faith community may need to exercise care when travelling in France.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V 50Hz. Outlets are CEE7/5 (protruding male earth pin) and accept either CEE 7/5 (Grounded), CEE 7/7 (Grounded) or CEE 7/16 (non-grounded) plugs. Older German-type CEE 7/4 plugs are not compatible as they do not accommodate the earth pin found on this type of outlet. However, most modern European appliances are fitted with the hybrid CEE 7/7 plug which fits both CEE 7/5 (Belgium & France) and CEE 7/4 (Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and most of Europe) outlets.
Plugs Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and other countries using 230V 50Hz which use different plugs simply require a plug adaptor to use their appliances in France. Plug adaptors for plugs from the US and UK are available from electrical and "do-it-yourself" stores such as Bricorama.
Voltage: Travellers from the US, Canada, Japan and other countries using 110V 60Hz may need a voltage converter. However, some laptops, mobile phone chargers and other devices can accept either 110V or 230V so only require a simple plug adaptor. Check the voltage rating plates on your appliances before connecting them.
France is divided into 22 administrative regions, which themselves can be grouped into seven cultural regions:
Each administrative region is divided into a number of departments. Each department is allocated a 2 digit number. This number forms the first 2 digits of the 5 digit French postcode.
The following overseas territories are remote possessions kept as natural reservations:
A very limited form of tourism is available in the TAAF islands.
France has numerous cities of interest to travelers, below is a list of nine of the most notable:
France is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
Citizens of Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Holy See, Honduras, Israel, Macedonia, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, San Marino, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Seychelles, Taiwan and Uruguay, as well as British Nationals (Overseas), are permitted to work in France without the need to obtain a visa or any further authorisation for the period of their 90 day visa-free stay. All other visa-exempt nationals are exempt from holding a visa for short-term employment if they possess a valid work permit and can present this work permit at the port of entry, with limited exceptions. However, this ability to work visa-free does not necessarily extend to other Schengen countries. For more information, visit this webpage of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign nationals who are not visa-exempt (e.g. South Africans) must make a 'declaration of entry' (déclaration d'entrée) at a police station or to border inspection personnel if they arrive in France directly from another country of Schengen Area (e.g. Italy), unless they hold a long-term visa or residence permit issued by a Schengen member state. Their passports will be endorsed by the authorities to prove that such a declaration has been made. This government webpage (in French)  provides more information.
If you intend to stay in France for longer than 90 days, regardless of purpose, an advance long-stay visa is always required of non-EEA or non-Swiss citizens. It is almost impossible to switch from a "C" (visitor) entry status to a "D" (long-stay) status from inside France, and you must apply for a long-stay visa in-person at the consulate responsible for your place of residence.
As of 2009, certain categories of long-stay visa, such as "visitor" (visiteur), family (vie privée et familiale), "student" (étudiant), "salaried worker" (salarié), and "short-term worker" (travailleur temporaire), do not require persons to obtain a separate residence permit (carte de séjour) for the first year of stay in France. However, the long-stay visa must be validated by the Office Française de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration (OFII) within the first three months of entering France to be valid for longer than those three months. This is done by sending in a form to the OFII received along with the visa with the address of residence in France, completing a medical examination, and attending an introductory meeting to validate the visa. The tax required for validation (€58 for students and €349 for salaried workers, visitors, and family) is, as of February 2013, collected at the end of the validation process inside France. This validated visa will serve as a residence permit and, likewise, allow travel throughout the other Schengen countries for up to 90 days in a 6-month period. To stay in France after your validated visa expires, however, and/or if you hold a visa which states carte de séjour à solliciter dès l'arrivée, a carte de séjour must be obtained at the préfecture responsible for your place of residence within two months of entry into France or two months before the visa expires. Please consult the OFII for more information.
Note that French overseas departments and territories are not part of the Schengen Area and operate a separate immigration regime to metropolitan France.
Flights to/from Paris
The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (IATA: CDG), , is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the home of Air France (AF), the national company, for most intercontinental flights. AF and the companies forming the SkyTeam Alliance (Dutch KLM, Aeromexico, Alitalia, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air,) use Terminal 2 while most other foreign airlines use Terminal 1. A third terminal is used for charter flights. If transferring through CDG (especially between the various terminals) it is important to leave substantial time between flights. Ensure you have no less than one hour between transfers. Add more if you have to change terminals as you will need to clear through security.
Transfers to another flight in France: AF operates domestic flights from CDG too, but a lot of domestic flights, and also some internal European flights, use Orly, the second Paris airport. For transfers within CDG you can use the free bus shuttle linking all terminals, train station, parking lots and hotels on the platform. For transfers to Orly there is a bus link operated by AF (free for AF passengers). The two airports are also linked by a local train (RER) which is slightly less expensive, runs faster but is much more cumbersome to use with heavy luggage. AF has agreements with the SNCF, the national rail company, which operates TGVs (see below) out of CDG airports (some trains carry flight numbers). The TGV station is in Terminal 2 and is on the route of the free shuttle. For transfers to the city centre of Paris, see Paris. Paris Star Shuttle  offers transfers from CDG into Paris.
Some low-cost airlines, including Ryanair and Volare, fly to Beauvais airport situated about 80 km northwest of Paris. Buses to Paris are provided by the airlines. Check schedules and fares on their websites.
Flights to/from regional airports
Other airports outside Paris have flights to/from international destinations: Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Toulouse have flights to cities in western Europe and North Africa; these airports are hubs to smaller airports in France and may be useful to avoid the transfer between the two Paris airports. Two airports, Bâle-Mulhouse and Geneva, are shared by France and Switzerland and can allow entry into either country.
Many airlines operate flights between regional airports in the UK and France:
Flybe  flies direct from the UK to Avignon (Provence), Bergerac, Béziers, Bordeaux, Brest (Brittany), Chambéry, Clermont-Ferrand, Geneva, La Rochelle, Limoges, Nantes, Nice, Paris CDG, Paris Orly, Pau (Pyrénées), Perpignan, Rennes, Toulouse and Tours.
Ryanair  flies direct from the UK to Bergerac, Béziers, Biarritz, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Dinard (Saint-Malo), Grenoble, La Rochelle, Limoges, Lourdes, Marseille, Montpellier, Nîmes, Perpignan, Poitiers, Rodez, Toulon (Côte d'Azur) and Tours.
France is served by numerous services from England to France:
Prices vary considerably depending on which route you choose. Generally the cheapest route is the short sea route across the English Channel which is Dover to Calais, so it is worth comparing prices before you decide which is the most suitable route to France.
Passengers travelling from Dover by ferry to France go through French passport/identity card checks in the UK before boarding, rather than on arrival in France. Passengers travelling from all other UK ports to France go through French passport/identity card checks on arrival in France.
There are also connections from Ireland to France:
Numerous companies now act as agents for the various ferry companies much like Expedia and Travelocity act as agents for airlines allowing the comparison of various companies and routes. Two well known brands are Ferryonline  and AFerry.co.uk .
The French rail company, SNCF, provides direct service from most European countries using regular trains. French train tickets can be purchased directly in the US from RailEurope  a subsidiary of the SNCF.
France has several Eurolines-hubs, .
Several weekends each year in France its Black Saturday (Samedi noir) because of the start or end of school holidays and the coinciding traffic jams on the French roads. When possible it is wise to avoid these black days. See for the actual forecast the website of the French traffic service .
See Driving in France.
The following carriers offer domestic flights within France:
See also: Driving in France
France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the freeway (autoroute) links are toll roads. Some have toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations. Don't lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards although may not accept foreign credit cards, or you can use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a chip.
Roads range from the narrow single-lane roads in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centres tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.
France drives on the right.
A French driver flashing headlights is asserting right of way and warning you of intentions and presence. Do not use it to mean thanks. Flashing headlights can also mean, "Watch out as there's a police speed-check ahead of you!" Horns should be used only in legitimate emergencies; use of the horn in urban areas outside such circumstances might win you a traffic ticket. Parisian drivers were notorious for honking their horns at anything and everything, though increased enforcement has greatly reduced this practice.
Renting a car
Once you land in France you may need to use car hire services. Most of the leading companies operate from French airports and there is good merit in booking car hire in advance. It is a regular experience at smaller French airports to not get the type of car you booked online but an alternative model. Sometimes the alternative model is quite different so check carefully before accepting the vehicle and stand your ground if it does not match your booking request and is not suitable to your needs.
Most cars in France are equipped with standard transmissions, a fact that derives equally from the preferences of the driving public and the peculiarities of French licensing laws (automatic transmissions are generally only used by the elderly or those with physical disabilities). This extends to vehicle categories that in other countries (read: the US) are virtually never equipped with a manual transmission, such as vans and large sedans. Accordingly, virtually all of the vehicles available for rent at the average car hire will be equipped with a manual gearbox. If you do not know how to drive a car with a manual transmission and don't have the time to learn before your trip, be certain to reserve your rental car well in advance and confirm your reservation. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a car that is much larger than you can afford (or with no car at all).
It is a good tip when travelling in numbers to get one member of the party with hand luggage to go straight through to the car hire desk ahead of everybody else, this will avoid the crush once the main luggage is picked up from the conveyor.
For short term rentals, you will find numerous familiar big name agencies (Hertz,SIXT,Avis,Alamo) which you can book through a number of online portals and compare prices side by side (Orbitz,Kayak,Expedia). All of the above rental agencies usually have similar pricing, vehicles and rental policies. Although it not recommended, one will usually be able to wait until near last minute to book online and still get a car when it comes to short term rentals.
However, for rentals exceeding three weeks in duration, it is often advantageous to use a "short term" lease buy back programs in which you need to book at least a few weeks in advance before departing. The lease buy back programs are uniquely French and offer a tax-free alternative to car rentals that can often have an overall lower cost and better value than a traditional car rental. The programs are typically run by the big three French auto makers Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen. Short term leasing offers clients a brand new vehicle, full insurance, unlimited mileage, and flexible driving rules compared to traditional car rentals. You must be a NON European resident to take part in this and one downfall is that you must have need for a car for more then three weeks in order to benefit from the service. Only certain agencies are authorized to sell these leases to US residents. Some of them include; Auto France, Inc. Peugeot(US), Citroen Europass (US), Renault USA (US).
France is a good country for hitchhiking. Be patient, prepare yourself for a long wait or walk and in the meantime enjoy the landscape. A ride will come along. People who stop are usually friendly and not dangerous. They will like you more if you speak a little French. They never expect any money for the ride.
Remember that getting out of Paris by thumb is almost impossible. You can try your luck at the portes, but heavy traffic and limited areas for stopping will try your patience. It's a good idea to take the local train to a nearby suburb as your chance of being picked up will increase dramatically.
Outside Paris, it's advisable to try your luck after roundabouts. As it's illegal to hitchhike on the motorways (autoroutes) and they are well observed by the police, you may try on a motorway entry. The greatest chance is at toll plazas (stations de péage), some of which require all cars to stop and are thus great places to catch a lift. Some tollbooths are really good, some not so good. If you've been waiting for a while with an indication of where to go, drop it and try with your thumb only. And also, you can try to get a ride to the next good spot in the wrong direction.
Note, though, that hitching from a péage, while a common practice, isn't legal and French police or highway security, who are normally very tolerant of hitchhikers, may stop and force you to leave. You can get free maps in the toll offices - these also indicate where you can find the "all-stop-Péage".
Trains are a great way to get around in France. You can get pretty much from anywhere to anywhere else by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse - High-Speed Train) on which reservations are obligatory. But, if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the scenery. The landscape is part of what makes France one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
The French national railway network is managed by Réseaux Ferrés de France, and most of the trains are run by the SNCF  (Société nationale des chemins de fer français). For interregional trains you can get schedules and book tickets online at voyages-sncf.com . For regional trains, schedules can be found at ter-sncf.com  (choose your region, then "Carte and horaires" for maps and timetables). Booking is available in two classes: première classe (first class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (second class). Note that if your TGV is fully booked, step aboard seconds before the doors close, and look for the guard ("contrôleur"). He will find you a seat somewhere.
There are a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:
If you'll be doing more than about 2 return journeys in France and are younger than 26, getting a "Carte 12-25" will save you money. They cost €50, last a year, and give anywhere from a 25% to 60% discount depending on when you book the ticket and when you travel.
Booking tickets online can be quite a confusing process as it is possible to book the same journey through a number of different websites (in different languages and currencies). The fares are not always consistent so it pays to check the same trip on a number of sites.
Both TGV-Europe and Voyages-SNCF frequently report errors in booking attempts; one of the workarounds is to call SNCF to book over the phone (00.33.8184.108.40.206 "from outside France" per ). The most attractive internet-only rates are not available there, but still it secures you a seat, and likely cheaper than if you buy in ticket office upon arrival.
If you've booked online on Voyages SNCF , you can pick up your ticket when you get to the train station. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, this web site allows you to order even if you live in the US; it is not concerned where you live, but where you will pick up the tickets or have them sent; thus if you wish to pick up the tickets at a SNCF train station or office, answer "France". When at the station, just go to the counter ("Guichet") and ask to have your ticket issued ("retirer votre billet"). You can ask "Je voudrais retirer mon billet, s'il vous plait", or 'zhe voo dray ruh teer ay mon bee yay, sill voo play' and then hand them the paper with the reference number.
To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains. On other long-distance trains, you can optionally make reservations (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one you may use any unused seat not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train coach number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and coach (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the coach number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.
The reserved seat rules are lax; you are allowed if you switch seats or use another seat (of the same class of course) if it is empty because the TGV is not fully booked or the other person agrees to switch with you. The only requirement is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person holding the reservation claims it.
On the main lines, TGVs often run in twos. There are two possibilities: either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in this case each coach has a different number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains which run together during a part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in this case, the two trains may have two close numbers such as 1527 and 1537), and each train will have its own coach numbering. So be sure you are in the right train (the train number is shown on the LCD screen, with the coach number).
If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the track that will show how the train and car numbers will line up on the track according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can stand by the letter corresponding with your coach number and wait to board the train closest to your coach. You can easily go from one coach to another, so if you are very late, jump in any coach of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated, then walk to your coach and seat number.
Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket must be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur") before entering the platform area to be valid. Older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels, unless you approach the conductor as quickly as possible and request that your ticket be validated. Likewise if you step aboard a train without a ticket, you must find the conductor ("contrôleur") and tell him about your situation before he finds you.
French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite unhelpful, especially if you do not understand much French. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" and they should repeat it.
Night train services also exist. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and Reclining seats. Wagon-lits (a compartment with 2 real beds) were totally withdrawn from French overnight trains. However, you can ask for a "private room" (in first class). Night trains have occasionally been targeted by criminals, though this is not a widespread problem.
Troc des trains
As it is cheaper to book and purchase train tickets, especially those with reservations, in advance, there is a relatively lively trading of non-exchangeable and non-reimburseable train tickets on the Internet. See http://www.trocdestrains.com/recherche-billet-train.html and http://www.kelbillet.com/billet-de-train-pas-cher/
Elsewhere, intercity coaches can only be found in departmental/regional service. So check for the peculiarities of bus service in the region you are in.
Tickets for local service are usually affordable, i.e. in the region of Île De France generally cost €1.60 (10 cents more if purchased from the driver).
French (français) is the official language of France, although there are regional variations in pronunciation and local words. For example, throughout France the word for yes, oui, said "we", but you will often hear the slang form "ouais", said "waay." It's similar to the English language usage of "Yeah" instead of "Yes".
In Alsace and part of Lorraine, a dialect of German called "Alsatian", which is almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard High German, is spoken. In the south, some still speak dialects of the Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc): Languedocien, Limousin, Auvergnat, or Provençal. Langue d'Oc is a Romance language, a very close relative of Italian, Spanish, or Catalan. In the west part of Brittany, a few people, mainly old or scholars, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. In parts of Aquitaine, Basque is spoken, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica a kind of Italian is spoken.In Provence, Provençal is most likely to be spoken, especially along the Riviera. In Paris, the ethnic Chinese community in Chinatown also speaks Teochew.
However, almost everyone speaks French and tourists are unlikely to ever come across regional languages, except in order to give a "folkloric" flair to things.
Hardly anybody understands imperial units such as gallons or Fahrenheit. Stick to metric units (after all, French invented this system!).
The French are generally attached to politeness (some might say excessively) and will react coolly to strangers that forget it. You might be surprised to see that you are greeted by other customers when you walk into a restaurant or shop. Return the courtesy and address your hellos/goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave small shops and cafes. It is, for the French, very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or client) without at least a polite word like "bonjour". For this reason, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases, or some equivalent polite form in English, goes a long way to convince them to try and help you.
Avoid "Salut" (Hi); it is reserved for friends and relatives, and to use it with people you are not acquainted with is considered quite impolite.
Some travel phrases:
Note that French spoken with an hard English accent or an American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be best to write down what you are trying to say. But tales of waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation doesn't meet French standards are highly exaggerated. A good-faith effort will usually be appreciated, but don't be offended if a waiter responds to your fractured French, or even fluent but accented, in English (If you are a fluent French speaker and the waiter speaks to you in English when you'd prefer to speak French, continue to respond in French and the waiter will usually switch back - this is a common occurrence in the more tourist-orientated areas, especially in Paris).
Please note that some parts of France (such as Paris) are at times overrun by tourists. The locals there may have some blasé feelings about helping for the umpteenth time foreign tourists who speak in an unintelligible language and ask for directions to the other side of the city. Be courteous and understanding.
As France is a very multicultural society, many African languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese or Cambodian could be spoken. Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and even Romanian are comprehensible to a French speaker to a reasonably wide extent, as they are all mutually intelligible through most words and come from the same family tree, but you should stick to French unless you're in a large city.
The standard sign language in France is French Sign Language, locally abbreviated LSF. Whenever an interpreter for the hearing-impaired is present at a public event, LSF will be used. Whether a user of a foreign sign language will be able to communicate in France depends on the user's specific language. For example, users of American Sign Language (also used in Anglophone Canada), Irish Sign Language, and Quebec Sign Language may be able to communicate to some degree. These languages are derived from LSF to a significant extent, and share a good deal of vocabulary and syntax. Languages in the LSF family also have one-handed manual alphabets that differ slightly from language to language. On the other hand, users of British Sign Language, New Zealand Sign Language, and Auslan will have great difficulty. These languages differ significantly in vocabulary and syntax from LSF, and also use the same two-handed manual alphabet.
Thinking of France, you might imagine the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the famous smile of Mona Lisa. You might think of drinking coffee in the lively Paris cafés where great intellectuals lingered in past times, or of eating croissants in a local bistro of a sleepy but gorgeous village in the countryside. Probably, images of splendid châteaux will spring to your mind, of lavender fields or perhaps of vineyards as far as the eye can see. Or perhaps, you'd envisage the chic resorts of the Cote D'Azur. And you wouldn't be wrong. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to France's many sights and attractions.
Paris. the "City of Light" and the capital of romance has been a travellers' magnet for centuries and a real must-see. Of course, no visit would be complete without a glance at its world famous landmarks. The Eiffel Tower is hard to miss, especially when it is lit beautifully at night, but the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur are both famous and stunning sights too. With no less than 3,800 national monuments in and around Paris, history is literally around every corner. Stroll through the city's spacious green parks, with the Luxembourg Gardens as one of the favourites, and make sure to spend some time on the famous banks of the river Seine. Also, don't miss the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the most grand reminder of the Ancient Regime located just 20 km away from the capital.
Bordeaux is famous for its wine but is also a bustling city with lots of historic sights to discover. It is listed as a World Heritage Site for being "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble". Lyon, the country's second largest city, is listed too, and boasts a beautiful old centre as well as a number of Roman ruins. Strasbourg, one of the EU headquarters, has a character of its own, with clear German influences. Montpellier is one of the best places in the south, with lots of monumental buildings and nice cafés. In the west there's the beautiful historic city of Nantes, home to the Château des ducs de Bretagne and many other monuments. The Capitole de Toulouse is situated right at the heart that famous university city's street plan. Last but not least, don't overlook Arles, with its World Heritage Listed Roman and Romanesque Monuments.
And then there are the magnificent cities of the Côte d'Azur, once the place to be for the rich and famous but now equally popular with a general crowd. Its sandy beaches, beautiful bays, rocky cliffs and lovely towns has made it one of the main yachting and cruising areas in the world as well as popular destination for land-bound travellers. There's bustling Nice, where some 4 million tourists a year enjoy the stony beaches and stroll over the Promenade des Anglais. Avignon with its splendid ramparts and Palais-des-Papes was once the seat of popes. Although Saint-Tropez gets overcrowded in summer, it's a delightful place in any other season. The same goes for Cannes, where the jet-set of the film industry gathers each year for the famous Cannes Film Festival. From there, you can hop on a boat to the much more peaceful Îles de Lérins.
Much smaller in size but just as gorgeous (and popular) are the perched villages of Gourdon and Èze, which is located on a 427 meter high cliff, much like an “eagle's nest”. Both offer some stunning panoramic views. From Èze, its a very short trip to the glitter and glamour of Monaco. For the world's millionaires and aristocracy, the green peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is an old time favourite with the impressive Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild full of impressionist art as its main sight. A bit more inland but well-worth a visit are the towns of Grasse, famous for its perfumeries, and Biot, known for its glass blowers. The huge city and arts-hub Marseille is usually not considered part of the Cote D'Azur, but is very close. It has plenty of historic sights and nearby are the stunning Calanques, a series of miniature fjords it shares with Cassis.
Countryside & villages
You haven't seen the best of France if you haven't had at least a taste of its amazing countryside, dotted with wonderful medieval villages and castles. There are great examples in any part of the country, but some 156 small towns have been identified as the most beautiful villages in France. The country's landscapes vary from the snow-covered peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees with their many winter sports resorts to lush river valleys, dense forests and huge stretches of farmland and vineyards. The Provence, backing a good part of the Côte d'Azur, is one of the most beloved regions. It has a typical Mediterranean atmosphere and is famous for its lavender fields and rosé wines. It's also home to the stunning Verdon Gorge, one of the most beautiful gorges in Europe. The rolling riverine landscape of the Loire Valley is home to many great castles, of which Châteaux Amboise, Château de Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Châteaux du Pin are some of the finest examples. The western region of Brittany reaches far into the Atlantic and boasts many megalith monuments such as those near Carnac. The beaches of Normandy, also on the Atlantic coast, are famed for the D-Day Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. Although the humbling Normandy American Cemetery and countless museums, memorials and war time remains keep memory of those dark days alive, the region is now a pleasant and popular destination. Its picturesque coast line includes both long stretches of beach and steep limestone cliffs, such as those near Étretat). The region is also home to the splendid and World Heritage listed Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay. The lush hills of the Dordogne form another region famous for its castles, with over 1500 of them on its 9000 km2 area.
As the French have a real taste for art, the country has numerous art galleries and museums. Several of them are widely considered to be among the finest museums in the world of art, art-history, and culture. The grandeur and fame of the Musée du Louvre in Paris can hardly be matched by any other museum in the world. It boasts a fabulous collection of art from antiquity to the 19th century and is home of the Mona Lisa and many other renowned works. At just a 15 minute walk from there is the Musée d'Orsay, another world class museum that picks up roughly where the Louvre's collections ends. It's located in an old railway station and houses the national collection of art works from the 1848 to 1914 period. Its excellent collection includes some of the best French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau works, including Degas' ballerinas and Monet's waterlillies. The Musée National d'Art Moderne in Centre Pompidou, still in France's capital, is the largest museum for modern art in Europe. The Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon has an excellent collection varying from ancient Egypt antiquities to Modern art paintings and sculptures. In Lille you'll find the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, one of the country's largest museums. Its varied collection is second in size after the Louvre and boasts anything from antiquities to modern art. Smaller but still outstanding are the collections of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi and the Picasso Museum in Paris. Marseille has many galleries and its Musée Cantini has a good collection of modern art associated with Marseille as well as several works by Picasso. Fondation Maeght houses modern art too and is situated in Saint-Paul de Vence.
Parks & natural attractions
Disneyland Resort Paris is by far France's most popular park, visited by families from all over Europe. The country's national parks have quite some visitors too though, due to their splendid scenery and great opportunities for outdoor sports. Vanoise National Park is the oldest and one of the largest parks, named after the Vanoise massif. Its highest peak is the Grande Casse at 3,855 m. The impressive natural landscapes of Parc national des Pyrénées are right on the southern border of France and extend well into Spain, where they are part of the Parc National Ordesa y Monte Perdido The whole area is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. In the French part, the glacial cirques of Gavarnie, Estaubé and Troumouse are some of the best sights, as is the wall of Barroud. The again mountainous Cévennes National Park covers parts of the Languedoc-Roussillon (including te popular Ardèche), Midi-Pyrénées and the Rhône-Alpes regions. Its headquarters is in the castle of Florac, but there are towns all over the park. Donkey rides are available and the Cave formation of Aven Armand is one of the parks' best sights.
Not yet under a protective status but highly popular is Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe and attractive for climbing, hiking and skiing. From the French side, it is mostly explored from Chamonix, a well known resort on the foot of the mountain.
Many of the French take their vacations in August. As a result, outside of touristic areas, many of the smaller stores (butcher shops, bakeries...) will be closed in parts of August. This also applies to many corporations as well as physicians. Obviously, in touristy areas, stores will tend to be open when the tourists come, especially July and August. In contrast, many attractions will be awfully crowded during those months, and during Easter week-end.
Some attractions, especially in rural areas, close or have reduced opening hours outside the touristic season.
Mountain areas tend to have two touristic seasons: in the winter, for skiing, snowshoeing and other snow-related activities, and in the summer for sightseeing and hiking.
France has the euro (€) as its sole currency along with 24 other countries that use this common European money. These 24 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of 327 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside (note, however, that many hotels propose lower prices than the posted ones if they feel they will have a hard time filling up their rooms; the posted price is only a maximum).
Almost all stores, restaurants and hotels take the CB French debit card, and its foreign affiliations, Visa and Mastercard. American Express tends to be accepted only in high-end shops. Check with your bank for applicable fees (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee).
French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/Mastercard cards) have a "smart chip" on them allowing PIN authentication of transactions. This system, initiated in France, has now evolved to an international standard and newer British cards are compatible. Some automatic retail machines (such as those vending tickets) may be compatible only with cards with the microchip. In addition, cashiers unaccustomed to foreign cards possibly do not know that foreign Visa or Mastercard cards have to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers systematically use PIN and don't sign the transactions.
There is (practically) no way to get a cash advance from a credit card without a PIN in France.
Automatic teller machines (ATM) are by far the best way to get money in France. They all take CB, Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus and Plus and are plentiful throughout France. They may accept other kinds of card; check for the logos on the ATM and on your card (on the back, generally) if at least one matches. It is possible that some machines do not handle 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit ones), or that they do not offer the choice between different accounts (defaulting on the checking account). Check with your bank about applicable fees, which may vary greatly (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee; because of the fixed fee it is generally better to withdraw money in big chunks rather than €20 at a time). Also, check about applicable maximal withdrawal limits.
Traveller's cheques are difficult to use — most merchants will not accept them, and exchanging them may involve finding a bank that accepts to exchange them and possibly paying a fee.
Note that the postal service doubles as a bank, so often post offices will have an ATM. As a result, even minor towns will have ATMs usable with foreign cards.
Exchange offices (bureaux de change) are now rarer with the advent of the Euro - they will in general only be found in towns with a significant foreign tourist presence, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees. The Bank of France no longer does foreign exchange.
Do's Put money into your checking account, carry an ATM card with a Cirrus or Plus logo on it and a 4-digit pin that does not start with '0' and withdraw cash from ATMs. Pay larger transactions (hotel, restaurants...) with Visa or Mastercard. Always carry some € cash for emergencies.
Don't's Carry foreign currency ($, £...) or traveller's cheques, and exchange them on the go, or expect them to be accepted by shops.
Inside city centre, you will find smaller stores, chain grocery stores (Casino) as well as, occasionally, department stores and small shopping malls. Residential areas will often have small supermarkets (Champion, Intermarché). Large supermarkets (hypermarchés such as Géant Casino or Carrefour) are mostly located on the outskirts of towns and are probably not useful unless you have a car.
Prices are indicated with all taxes (namely, the TVA, or value-added tax) included. It is possible for non-EU residents to get a partial refund upon departure from certain stores that have a "tax-free shopping" sticker; inquire within. TVA is 19.6% on most things, but 7% on some things such as books, restaurant meals, and public transport and 5.5% on food purchased from grocery stores (except for sweets and candies!). Alcoholic beverages are always taxed at 19.6%, regardless of where they're purchased.
With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important - try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French "brasseries" or "bistros" that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. There are also specific local restaurants, like "bouchons lyonnais" in Lyons, "crêperies" in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc.
Chinese, Vietnamese, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or "traiteurs" (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have "Italian" restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlors. You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US.
In France, taxes (7 per cent of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an "extra-tip". French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d'eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available).
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (prix fixe) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of three steps, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for lunch and dinner, nor are they open all year around. It is therefore advisable to check carefully the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in the downtown area. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you're considering is specially advised in guide books.
A lunch or dinner for two on the "menu" including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local "bistro" or a "crêperie" around €50. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if one looks carefully.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will include a fourth course, usually cheese. As everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember in your plate.
All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day.
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was poor people's food):
Cooking and drinking is a notable part of the French culture, take time to eat and discover new dishes...
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you're curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
Let us also cite:
France is certainly THE country of cheese, with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying "How can you govern a country which has 365 varieties of cheese?".
Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find:
Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes.
There may still be confusions between vegetarianism and pesce/pollotarianism. Vegetarian/organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, "traditional" French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the menu, so you may have to pick something "à la carte", which is usually more expensive. Veganism is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries.
Breakfast in France isn't the most important meal of the day and is usually very light. The most typical breakfast consists of a coffee and a croissant or some other "viennoiserie", but since it implies going to the baker's store early in the morning to buy fresh croissant, it's typically reserved for somewhat special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and either toasts ("tartines" made of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella) that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk. People who eat healthy may go for fruits and yoghurt. As a general rule, the french breakfast is mostly sweet, but everything changes and you can have salty breakfasts everywhere today.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley... France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where "Biere de Garde" can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
Wine and liquors may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialized stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a "specialty" with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Never drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with bums and drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is ok.
Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they're served to you at the bar or sitting at a table - the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you're not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though - while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar. Note also that cafés in touristy areas, especially in Paris, tend to serve very expensive food of rather average quality. Unless you are dying of hunger or thirst, avoid the places that have menus in multiple languages or are near heavily-trafficked attractions. Instead, consider buying snacks and beverages from a grocery store and enjoying them in a nearby park.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
Short term rentals
Travelers should definitely consider short term villa/apartment/studio rentals as an alternative to other accommodations options. Short term can be as few as several days up to months at a stretch. Summer rentals are usually from Saturday to Saturday only (July & August). This type accommodation belongs to a private party, and can range from basic to luxurious. A particular advantage, aside from competitive prices, is that the accommodations come with fully fitted kitchens.
Hundreds of agencies offer accommodation for short term rentals on behalf of the owner, and can guide you into finding the best property, at the best price in the most suitable location for you. An internet search for the location and type of property you're looking for will usually return the names of several listing sites, each of which may have hundreds or thousands of properties for you to choose from. There are plenty of sites in both English and French, and the rental properties may be owned by people of any nationality.
France is a diverse and colourful country, and you'll find everything from stunning log chalets in the Alps, Chateaux in the countryside and beach front villas on the Riviera...plus everything in between!
Hotels come in 5 categories from 1 to 5 stars. This is the official rating given by the Ministry of Tourism, and it is posted at the entrance on a blue shield. Stars are awarded according to objective yet somewhat outdated administrative criteria (area of the reception hall, percentage of rooms with ensuite bathroom...).
Rates vary according to accommodation, location and sometimes high or low season or special events.
As of 2004, the rate for a *** hotel listed in a reliable guidebook falls between €70 (cheap) and €110 (expensive) for a double without breakfast.
All hotels, by law, must have their rates posted outside (or visible from outside). Note that these are maximal rates: a hotel can always propose a lower rate in order to fill up its rooms. Bargaining is not the norm but you can always ask for a discount.
Hotels located in city centres or near train stations are often very small (15-30 rooms) which means that you should book ahead. Many newer hotels, business oriented, are found in the outskirts of cities and are sometimes larger structures (100 rooms or more); they may not be easy to reach with public transportation. The newer hotels are often part of national or international chains and have high standards. Many older hotels are now part of chains and provide standardized service but they retain their own atmosphere.
When visiting Paris, it is essential to stay in the city; there are cheaper tourism hotels in the suburbs, but these cater to groups in motor coaches; they will be hard to reach by public transportation.
Along the highways, at the entrance of cities, you find US-like motels ; they are very often reachable only by car. Some motels (e.g. Formule 1) have minimal service, if you come in late you find an ATM-like machine, using credit cards, which will deliver a code in order to reach your assigned room.
B & Bs and Gîtes
Throughout France, mainly in rural areas but also in towns and cities, you can find B&Bs and gîtes.
B&B's are known in French as "Chambres d'hôtes" and are generally available on a nightly basis. By law, breakfast MUST be included in the advertised price for a "chambre d'hôte". Bear this in mind when comparing prices with hotels, where breakfast is NOT included in the room price.
Gites or gites ruraux are holiday cottages, and generally rented out as a complete accommodation unit including a kitchen, mostly on a weekly basis. There are very few near or in the cities. Finding them requires buying a guide or, for greater choice, using the internet, as you will not find a lot of signposts on the road.
Traditionally, gites provided basic good value accommodation, typically adjacent to the owners household or in a nearby outbuilding. More recently the term has been extended, and can now be used to describe most country-based self-catering accommodation in France. Hence it includes accommodation as varied as small cottages villas with private swimming pools.
During peak summer months the best self-catering gites require booking several months in advance.
There are thousands of B&Bs and gites in France rented out by foreign owners, particularly British and Dutch, and these tend to be listed, sometimes exclusively, with English-language or international organisations and websites that can be found by keying the words "chambres d'hotes", "gites" or "gites de france" into any of the major search engines.
There is a large number of organisations and websites offering "gites". Literally the French word gite just means a place to spend the night; however it now largely used to describe rental cottages or self-catering holiday homes, usually in rural parts of France.
Gîtes de France
A France-wide cooperative organisation, Gites de France regroups on a voluntary basis more than 50,000 rural accommodations and was the first in France to offer a consistent rating system with comprehensive descriptions.
Despite the name, Gites de France offers B&B as well as holiday rental (gite) accommodation.
The "Gites de France" rating system uses wheat stalks called Epis (equivalent to stars), based on amenities rather than quality - though generally the two go together.
Through its website, bookings can be done directly with owners or through the local Gîtes de France booking agency (no extra fee for the traveler). Although an English language version is available for many of the website pages, for some departments the pages giving details of an individual gite are only in French.
There is no particular advantage in using Gites de France rather than one of the other online gites sites, or booking directly with a gite. The procedure is pretty standard for all gite booking sites, whether French or foreign - with the advantage that absolutely all the booking process can be done in English if you use an English-language portal, which is not always the case with Gites de France.
After making a gite booking you will receive, by post, a contract to sign (gites only). Sign and return one copy. When signing write the words "Read and approved", and the name of your home town, before signing and dating the contract. You will normally be asked to pay a deposit of a quarter to a third of the booking fee. The rest will be required one month before the start of your holiday. When you arrive at the gite a security deposit, specified in the contact, should be given to the owner in cash. This will be returned at the end of your stay, less any fuel charges and breakages.
Another great resource for booking Gites and Villas in France is Holiday France Direct, It enables you to deal directly with the property owners and offers customers discounted ferry travel with Brittany Ferries. www.holidayfrancedirect.co.uk
Another possibility is gîtes d'étape. These are more like overnight stays for hikers, like a mountain hut. They are mostly cheaper than the Gîtes de France but also much more basic.
Camping is very common in France. Most campsite are a little way out of the city centre and virtually all cater not just for tents but for Camper Vans/Caravans also. While all campsites have the basic facilities of Shower/toilet blocks, larger sites tend to offer a range of additional facilities such as bars and restaurants, self-service laundries, swimming pools or bicycle hire. All campsites except for very small "farm camping" establishments must be registered with the authorities, and are officially graded using a system of stars.
In coastal areas, three-star and four-star campgrounds must generally be booked in advance during the months of July and August, and many people book from one year to the next. In rural areas, outside of popular tourist spots, it is usually possible to show up unannounced, and find a place; this is particularly true with the municipal campsites that can be found in most small towns; though even then it may be advisable to ring up or email in advance to make sure. There are always exceptions.
In France it's forbidden to camp:
France, of course, is the best place to acquire, maintain and develop your French. A number of institutions offer a variety of courses for travellers.
If you are by law required to obtain a visa or other type of authorisation to work and fail to do so, you risk possible arrest, prosecution, expulsion and prohibition from reentering France and the Schengen area.
Citizens of EU and EEA countries (save from some Eastern European countries, for a temporary period) and Switzerland can work in France without having to secure a work permit. Most non-EU citizens will need a work permit - however, some non-EU citizens (such as Canadians, Croatians, New Zealanders etc) do not require a visa or work permit to work during their 90 day visa-free period of stay in France (see the 'Get in' section above for more information).
If you are an EU citizen or from an EEA country and want to earn money to continue traveling, Interim agencies (e.g. Adecco, Manpower) are a good source of temporary jobs. You can also consider working in bars, restaurants, and/or nightclubs (they are often looking for English-speaking workers, particularly those restaurants in tourist areas - fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Quick are also always looking for people).
A lot of "student jobs", if you happen to be in a big city, are also available for younger travelers, and foreigners are often very welcome. Such jobs include, for example, giving private English lessons, taking care of young children or many other things...check out the university buildings, they often have a lot of advertisements. An easy way to find job offers in France is to use Trovit.fr , search engine for job offers in France.
Don't forget that being an English speaker is a big advantage when you're looking for a job - French employers really have a problem finding English-speaking workers. Do note, however, that it will be much easier for you if you know a bit of French, for the same reason (your colleagues are not likely to speak English). However, don't overestimate your chances of finding work; in March 2005 unemployment is back at 10%, and a whopping 22% among under-25's.... many of whom speak or understand English. There are a lot more people looking for jobs than there are jobs - except those unattractive jobs that no-one wants to do.
The French work market tends to operate through personal contacts - if you know someone that works somewhere, you can probably figure out quite an easy way to work at that place too. It always helps to know people living in the area you wish to work.
Crime-related emergencies can be reported to the toll-free number 17. Law enforcement forces are the National Police (Police Nationale) in urban area and the Gendarmerie in rural area, though for limited issues such as parking and traffic offenses some towns and villages also have a municipal police.
France is a very low-crime area, and is one of the safest countries in the world, but large cities are plagued with the usual woes. Violent crime against tourists or strangers is very rare, but there is pickpocketing and purse-snatching.
The inner city areas and a few select suburbs are usually safe at all hours. In large cities, especially Paris, there are a few areas which are better to avoid. Parts of the suburban are sometimes grounds for youth gang violent activities and drug dealing; however these are almost always far from touristic points and you should have no reason to visit them. Common sense applies: it is very easy to spot derelict areas.
The subject of crime in the poorer suburbs is very touchy as it may easily have racist overtones, since many people associate it with working-class youth of North African origin. You should probably not express any opinion on the issue.
While it is not compulsory for French citizens to carry identification, they usually do so. Foreigners should carry some kind of official identity document. Although random checks are not the norm you may be asked for an ID in some kinds of situations, for example if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transportation; not having one in such cases will result in you being taken to a police station for further checks. Even if you feel that law enforcement officers have no right to check your identity (they can do so only in certain circumstances), it is a bad idea to enter a legal discussion with them; it is better to put up with it and show ID. Again, the subject is touchy as the police have often been accused of targeting people according to criteria of ethnicity (e.g. délit de sale gueule = literally "crime of a dirty face" but perhaps equivalent to the American "driving while black.")
Due to the terrorist factor, police, with the help of military units, are patrolling monuments, the Paris subway, train stations and airports. Depending on the status of the "Vigipirate" plan (anti terrorist units) it is not uncommon to see armed patrols in those areas. The presence of police is of help for tourists, as it also deters pickpockets and the like. However, suspicious behaviour, public disturbances etc., may result in policemen asking to see an ID.
In France, failing to offer assistance to 'a person in danger' is illegal. This means that if you fail to stop upon witnessing a motor accident, fail to report such an accident to emergency services, or ignore appeals for help or urgent assistance, you may be charged. Penalties include suspended prison sentence and fines. The law does not apply in situations where to answer an appeal for help might endanger your life or the lives of others.
Carrying or using narcotic substances, from marijuana to hard drugs, is illegal whatever the quantity. The penalty can be severe especially if you are suspected of dealing. Trains and cars coming from countries which have a more lenient attitude (like the Netherlands) are especially targeted. Police have often been known to stop entire coaches and search every passenger and their bags thouroughly just because they're coming from Amsterdam.
France has a liberal policy with respect to alcohol; there are usually no ID checks for purchasing alcohol (unless you look much younger than 18). However, causing problems due to public drunkenness is a misdemeanor and may result in a night in a police station. Drunk driving is a severe offense and may result in heavy fines and jail sentences.
A little etiquette note: while it is common to drink beer straight from the bottle at informal meetings, doing the same with wine is normally only done by tramps (clochards).
Tap water (Eau du robinet) is drinkable, except in rare cases such as rural rest areas and sinks in train bathrooms, in which case it will be clearly signposted as Eau non potable. Eau potable is potable water. (You may, however, not like the taste which may be chlorinated, botteled water is common.)
The health care in France is of a very high standard.
Pharmacies in France are denoted by a green cross, usually in neon. They sell medicines, contraceptives, and often beauty and related products (though these can be very expensive). Medicines must be ordered from the counter, even non-prescription medicines. The pharmacist is able to help you about various medicines and propose you generic drugs.
Since drug brand names vary across countries even though the effective ingredients stay the same, it is better to carry prescriptions using the international nomenclature in addition to the commercial brand name. Prescription drugs, including oral contraceptives (aka "the pill"), will only be delivered if a doctor's prescription is shown.
In addition, supermarkets sell condoms (préservatifs) and also often personal lubricant, bandages, disinfectant and other minor medical item. Condom machines are often found in bar toilets, etc.
Medical treatment can be obtained from self-employed physicians, clinics and hospitals. Most general practitioners, specialists (e.g. gynecologists), and dentists are self-employed; look for signs saying Docteur (médecine générale is general practitioner). The normal price for a consultation with a general practitioner is €23, though some physicians charge more (this is the full price and not a co-payment). Physicians may also do home calls, but these are more expensive.
Residents of the European Union are covered by the French social security system, which will reimburse or directly pay for 70% of health expenses (30% co-payment) in general, though many physicians and surgeons apply surcharges. Other travellers are not covered and will be billed the full price, even if at a public hospital; non-EU travellers should have travel insurance covering medical costs.
Hospitals will have an emergency room signposted Urgences.
The following numbers are toll-free:
Operators at these numbers can transfer requests to other services if needed (e.g. some medical emergencies may be answered by firefighter groups).
Smoking is prohibited by law in all enclosed spaces accessible to the public (this includes train and subway cars, train and subway station enclosures, workplaces, restaurants and cafés) unless in areas specifically designated for smoking, and there are few of these. There was an exception for restaurants and cafés, but since the 1st January 2008, the smoking ban law is also enforced there. You may face a fine of €68 if you are found smoking in these places.
Smoking is banned in métro and trains, as well as enclosed stations. Subway and train conductors do enforce the law and will fine you for smoking in non-designated places; if you encounter problems with a smoker in train, you may go find the conductor.
As hotels are not considered as public places, some offer smoking vs non-smoking rooms.
Only people over the age 18 may purchase tobacco products. Shopkeepers may request a photo ID.
On the Métro
The Métro subway system is a great way to get around Paris (or Lyon, Marseille, et al.), which is readily apparent in the throngs of people that use it to go to work, school, and the like. If you do not ride the train at home, or if you come from a place that doesn't have a subway system, there are certain points of etiquette that you may not be aware of. When boarding at the station, let those exiting the train step off onto the platform before boarding, and once aboard move to the centre of the car. If you have luggage, move it as far out of the path of others as possible (on the RER B to Charles de Gaulle airport, use the luggage racks above the seats instead). Certain stations have moving sidewalks to cover the distances between platforms - walk on the left and stand on the right! Finally, do note that the doors on French subway cars don't generally open automatically once the train has stopped at the station; rather, most cars have a small button or lever on the doors that opens them. If you should happen to be standing near the door in a crowded car you might hear someone behind you say "la porte, s'il vous plait," which means that person would like to get off the train and is asking you to open the door for him/her. Pop the door open and step aside (or down onto the platform) while that person exits the train - the driver will wait for you to get back on.
It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as a subway car or restaurant. Keep in mind that, though you may be enjoying your holiday, most people around you in the métro or other places are probably going to or back from work and may be tired and thus will react very coldly to tourists babbling at the top of their lungs. If you listen to the locals talk, you will notice that they talk rather softly.
In many shops/stores in France, you should ask the shopkeeper to take items from the shelf; as opposed to picking it up yourself. This applies in liquor or wine stores, clothing stores, etc. Failure to respect this policy might result in confused and/or angered reactions from the shopkeeper.
Dress codes are fast disappearing, but if you want to avoid looking like a tourist, then avoid white sneakers, baseball caps, tracksuit pants, shorts and flip-flops (except at the beach). Generally speaking, business casual dress code is sufficient in cities and in all but the most formal occasions.
Usual courtesy applies when entering churches, and although you may not be asked to leave, it is better to avoid short pants and halter tops.
Some restaurants will frown if you come in dressed for trekking but very few will insist upon a jacket and tie. You may be surprised by the number of French twenty-somethings who show up at a grungy bar in jacket and tie, even if obviously from a thrift-shop.
Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for getting a tan. Taking off your bra will not usually create a stir if you don't mind a bevy of oglers. Taking off the bottom part is reserved to designated nude beaches. People on beaches are usually not offended by a young boy or girl undressed. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area. Many pools will not allow baggy or "board" swim trunks, insisting on snug fitting speedo type trunks.
Breastfeeding in public is very rare but nobody will mind if you do.
Talking to people
The French language has two different forms of the pronoun "you" that are used when addressing someone in the second person. "Tu" is the second-person singular and "Vous" is nominally the second-person plural. However, in some situations, French speakers will use "Vous" for the second-person singular. While one will use "Vous" to address a group of people no matter what the circumstances, non-native speakers will invariably have some difficulty when trying to determine whether to address a person with the informal and friendly "tu" or the formal and respectful "vous." The language even has two special verbs reflecting this difference: "tutoyer" (to address a person using "tu"), and "vouvoyer" (to address a person using "vous"), each of them carrying their own connotations and implications. Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use which form can sometimes seem maddeningly opaque to the non-native French speaker.
Generally speaking, one will only use the "tu" form to address someone in an informal situation where there is familiarity or intimacy between the two parties. For example, "tu" is used when addressing a close friend or spouse, or when an adult child is addressing a parent. "Tu" is also used in situations where the other party is very young, such as a parent speaking to a child or a schoolteacher to a student. In contrast, "vous" is used in situations where the parties are not familiar, or where it is appropriate to convey respect and/or deference. For example, an office worker might use "tu" to address co-workers that he works closely with, but he would probably use "vous" when speaking to the receptionist he rarely talks to. He certainly wouldn't use "tu" when speaking with his boss. In that same vein, police officers and other authorities should always be addressed with "vous."
If that's confusing (or not confusing enough) the key thing to remember is that it's all about distance. For example, a bartender is vous up until the moment that he or she gives you a complementary drink, at which point tu becomes more appropriate, and the use of vous would be a bit ungrateful and off-putting.
For foreigners, the best way to deal with the "tu" and "vous" problem is to address people using "vous" until invited to say "tu", or until addressed by the first name. Doing so will look perhaps a shade old fashioned, but always respectful. In most cases, if French is not your native language most French people will overlook any such overly formal and polite language without thinking much about it anyway. Doing the opposite can be pretty rude and embarrassing in some situations, so it's probably best to err on the side of caution.
Simplified: Use vous unless:
As a general rule, debates, discussions, and friendly arguments are something that the French enjoy, but there are certain topics that should be treated more delicately or indirectly than others:
Politics: French people have a wide variety of opinions about many subjects. Unless you really follow French news closely, you should probably steer clear of discussing internal French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration - you may come across as judgmental and uninformed. Reading French newspapers to get a feel for the wide spectrum of political opinions in France – from the revolutionary left to the nationalistic right – may help. That said, don't be discouraged from engaging in political discussions with French people, just be aware of the position that being a foreigner puts you in. Also, it is considered to be quite rude to ask a person point-blank about which candidate he/she voted for in the last election (or will vote for in the next); instead, talk about the issues and take it from there.
Religion: The French seldom advertise their religious feelings, however, and expect you to avoid doing so as well. Doing so might make people feel uneasy. It is also generally considered impolite to inquire about religious or other personal issues. While France has barred religious symbols from public places including Sikh turban, Islamic hijab and Jewish kippah on grounds of secularism, this controversial topic is best avoided in polite conversations. People practicing those faiths need to be aware of the unfriendly attitudes that some in France hold to expression of religion in public places.
Money: You should also avoid presenting yourself through what you own (house, car, etc.). It is also considered to be quite crass to discuss your salary, or to ask someone else directly about theirs. Instead express your enthusiasm about how great are the responsibilities, or how lucky you were to get there, etc.
City/Rural Differences: While it is true that roughly 1/6th of the country's population lives in the Paris region, don't make the mistake of reducing France to Paris or assuming that all French people act like Parisians. Life in Paris can be closer to life in London or New York City than in the rest of France; just as New Yorkers or Londoners might act and feel differently than people from, say, Oklahoma or Herefordshire, so might Parisian customs and opinions differ from those found "en province."
To call a French number from abroad, dial: international prefix + 33 + local number without the leading 0. For example: ++33 247 664 118
All french numbers have 10 digits. The first two digits are:
You cannot drop the first two digits even if your call remains within the same area. The initial '0' may be replaced by some other digit or longer code indicating a choice of long-distance operator. Don't use this unless explicitly told to.
When speaking phone numbers, people will usually group the digits by sets of two. For example, 02 47 66 41 18 will be said as "zero two, forty-seven, sixty-six, forty-one, eighteen" (but in French, of course). The two-digit pair 00 is said as "zero zero", not "double zero". for example if your phone number is 02 47 66 41 18 in France, it would be said as "zéro deux, quarante-sept, soixante-six, quarante et un, dix-huit." If you find it too hard to follow, you may ask the person to say the number digit-by-digit ("chiffre par chiffre"). It would then be "zero, two, four, seven, six, six, four, one, one, eight" ("zéro, deux, quatre, sept, six, six, quatre, un, un, huit").
You can to visit this site to find instructions about the nationals and internationals calls: .
There are few companies that provide toll-free numbers (starting with 08 00) but many have numbers starting with 081, for which you pay the cost of a local call regardless of where you are in the country.
Numbers starting with 089 are heavily surtaxed. They provide service to some legitimate businesses but the ones you see advertised all over the country are usually for adult services.
Emergency numbers are 15 (medical aid), 17 (police station) and 18 (fire/rescue). You can also use the European emergency number 112 (perhaps a better choice if you don't speak French). These calls are free and accessible from virtually any phone, including locked cellphones. In case of a serious emergency, if you find a code-protected cellphone, enter a random code three times: the phone will lock, but you will be able to dial emergency numbers.
Cheap international calls
To enjoy cheap international calls from France travelers can get a local France Sim Card  online before they leave or use low-cost dial-around services such as appellemonde  or allo2556 . Dial-around services are directly available from any landline in France. No contract, no registration is required. Most dial-around services allows you to call USA, Canada, Western Europe and many other countries at local rate (tarif local) so you can easily save on your phone bill. They also work from payphones, though the first minute is surcharged by France Telecom.
To know how to order a landline (ligne fixe) in France you can click on landline providers in France . Another method, if you stay long, is to use VoIP over DSL, such as the Livebox or Freebox service (free long distance calls within France and to a number of countries).
Phone booths are available in train or subway stations, bus stops, near tourist attractions, etc. There is at least one phone booth in every village (look on the main plaza). Due to the widespread use of mobile phones, there are now fewer booths than a few years ago. Most use a card (no coins). France Télécom public phones accept CB/Visa/Mastercard cards but almost always only with a microchip. Otherwise, post offices, café-tabacs (recognizable by a red sign hanging outside), and stores that sell magazines sell phone cards. Ask for a "carte telephonique"; these come with differing units of credit, so you may want to specify "petit" if you just want to make a short local call or two. If you get the kind with a computer chip in it, you just have to slide it into the phone, listen for the dial tone, and dial. The US-style cards require you to dial a number and then enter a code (but with spoken instructions in French).
France uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in most of the world outside of the U.S. There are several companies (Orange, SFR/simpleo, Virgin Mobile, and Bouygues Telecom) offering wireless service. The country is almost totally covered but you may have difficulties using your mobile phone in rural or mountainous areas. However, for emergency numbers, the three companies are required by law to accept your call if they technically can, even if you are not one of their customers, thus maximizing your chance of being helped even in areas with spotty service.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 Mhz bands. Then incoming calls are free. You can get it from most mobile service provider (Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom), but they have a very short validity for the card if you don't recharge it. Mobile coverage in French cities is good but can be poor in rural areas, check the France cell coverage map from OpenSignal to find the best network in a particular area.
Internet cafes: Internet access is available in cyber cafes all over large and medium-sized cities. Service is usually around €4 per hour.
Residential broadband: In all major cities, there are multiple companies offering residential broadband service. Typical prices are €30 a month for unmetered ADSL (in speeds up to 24 megabits per second), digital HDTV over DSL and free unlimited voice-over-IP phone calls to land lines within France and about twenty other countries (EU,US,...) with external SIP access too (the price includes a modem/routeur/switch with integrated WiFi MiMo access point). Broadband services are very common in France, all over the country.
Wifi: You'll also find wifi access (in Paris) in a lot of cafés usually those labelled a bit "trendy". There will be a sign on the door or on the wall. Also look for the @ symbol prominently displayed, which indicates internet availability. However, with most homes now wired for the internet, cyber cafes are increasingly hard to find, especially outside the major cities. In Paris, one popular WIFI free spot is the Pompidou Centre. There is talk that the city intends to become the first major European capital providing free WIFI coverage for the whole city. Public parks and libraries in Paris are also covered.
Mobile Hotspot rental
(for smartphones, tablets, laptop of any wifi enabled device)
FrenchConnection.fr  is now offering mobile hotspot/mifi rental for a fixed daily price. Everything of done online and in English before your arrival in France. When you get there, your mobile hotspot is waiting for you at your hotel. Very easy to use (the only thing you have to do is to turn it on and enter the wifi name and password on your phone), these devices can be shared by up to 5 devices at the same time. And with prices starting at 6€/day (with 100MB included), this is far less expensive that any data roaming deal. The devices also come with a prepaid return envelope, and the package has been designed to allow dropping in any mailbox, just before leaving the country. Note that this service allows VOIP programs like Skype!
Short-term SIM cards
(for smartphones and tablets)
Orange has nearly-unlimited Internet 1-month package for €9 called InternetMax. Official limit of 500MB is not enforced. Tethering is not allowed, but this is not enforced. Email (POP3/SMTP/IMAP) is not covered, and sold as a separate package for €9 per month. P2P, VoIP and USENET are specifically banned, and risk getting your plan cancelled as well as the loss of any call credit remaining on your account.
It is called InternetMax; to set it up:
As the plan is not marketed by Orange, staff at outlets and hotline operators are completely unaware of it, and Orange website tells very little on it even in French. If your French is poor, a detailed third-party instruction like  can be very helpful.
Post offices are found in all cities and villages but their time of operation vary. In the main cities the downtown office may be open during lunchtime, typically 09:00 to 18:00. Most offices are only open on Saturday morning and there is only one office in Paris which is open 24 hours and 365 days (in rue du Louvre).
Letter boxes are colored in yellow.
International delivery services like FedEx, UPS, are available in cities, however you generally have to call them for them to come to you as they have very few physical locations.
Another option is to simply use La Poste with a wide network around the country and the same services as its competitors.
Toilets are available in restaurants, cafés; there are also public facilities, which generally charge a fee. Note that American euphemisms such as "restroom", "washroom" etc. will often not be understood; ask for "toilets". In older public facilities, particularly those that do not charge or isolated rest areas, you may encounter squat toilets.