Some fun facts about France to startle your friends with.

You probably do know that a Frenchman invented braille but did you know that the Napoleonic pig naming is a myth? It’s one of the three myths dispelled at the end of this article that takes in some odd fun facts about France.

This was a fun article to research and write so I hope you enjoy it.

So let’s start with inventions. It turns out that France produced a great number of them.

The modern bra

The modern bra was invented by Herminie Cadolle in 1889.

The enterprising woman modified the older corset (a one-piece) into two pieces, with the upper part held up by shoulder straps. Under the company name, the Cadolle Lingerie House, she exhibited at the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900. Five years later the upper half was sold separately.

Suzanne Lenglen playing tennis in 1920. Old black and white photo of her in the air doing a backhand shot with one arm raised behind her. She's in long skirts
Suzanne Lenglen playing in 1920 Public domain via Wikimedia

Cadolle was immensely successful, holding up the breasts of the great and the good, royalty and actresses. Suzanne Lenglen wore her bras while smashing the opposition at tennis in the 1920s. A host of Coco Chanel clients were customers. Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer who was shot as a spy by the Germans was another.

One piece black body lingerie by Cadolle Paris with lace on sexy model
Lingerie by Cadolle


You can still buy a Cadolle creation online or at one of the two shops in Paris. It’s very sexy, and very expensive.  

The invention of Braille

Braille was developed by Louis Braille in 1824, aged 15.

After losing his sight aged 10, Louis Braille was sent to the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children) in Paris. A captain in Napoleon’s army on a visit to the school showed them his ‘night writing’ using raised dots and dashes. Used by soldiers for messaged at night without speaking, Louis Braille adapted it, using just 6 dots.

France officially adopted Braille as the official communications system for blind people in 1854, 2 years after Louis Braille’s death.

Adopting Camouflage

Guirand de Scévola, French camouflage inventor sitting in chair in front of a painting with painbrush in hand
Guirand de Scévola, French camouflage inventor Public domain via Wikimedia

The French army pioneered the use of camouflage in world War I.

The French army was the first to form a dedicated camouflage unit in 1915, led by the artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola. They were then copied by other World War armies.

Wearing camouflage was first practised in the mid-18th century by rifle units. In World War I, the French army employed artists, called camoufleurs, to make covers for military equipment. The word ‘camoufleur’ is Parisian slang for disguise.

Mayday mayday mayday

The international distress signal Mayday comes from the French m’aidez, or ‘help me’.

Black and white postcard of Croydon Aerodrome in 1936 showing a passenger plane in front of the main communications tower
Croydon Aerodrome in 1936 Public domain via Wiklmedia

But it wasn’t invented by a Frenchman. One Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio office at Croydon airport, was asked to think up a distress call that could be understood by all pilots and ground staff. As most of the traffic from Croydon airport went to Le Bourget, he came up with the idea of using the anglicised form of the French ‘help me’, becoming ‘Mayday’. It must be used three times to distinguish it clearly in noisy conditions.

Roundabouts (Rond-Points)

Over half the world’s traffic roundabouts are to be found in France.

Black and white tractor with haybale behind on a roundabout in France
French roundabout decoration Public domain via Wikimedia

I’ve found this impossible to check accurately, but I noticed their frantic adoption a few years ago. With a house in France, we witnessed the sudden explosion and steady growth. Every small village sprouted at least one roundabout. A couple of years ago it was claimed that there were more than 30,000 dotted around the country. Current estimates rise up to 50,000.

One thing I could establish: the Loire-Atlantique department has the highest number at 3,000 in the whole country. There are 1,100 in Nantes alone.

Apparently the latest exciting news is that peanut-shaped roundabouts are the future.

There are still no roundabouts in my local village.

The French King with the shortest reign…ever

Liberty leading the People by Eugène Delacroix with liberty holding up French flag above soldiers on ground, some dead, some dying
Liberty leading the People by Eugène Delacroix Public domain via Wikimedia

Louis XIX had the shortest reign of any monarch in the world.

Louis was the eldest son of the French King, Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch. When his father abdicated during the July Revolution of 1830, Louis became King. He lasted 20 minutes before abdicating. His cousin, Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, became King. But he suffered the same fate and was overthrown in 1848. Tumultuous times for France, and the rest of Europe.

Louis XIX and his wife travelled to Edinburgh in November 1830 and lived in Regent Terrace, near Holyrood Palace where his father Charles X was staying.

The French and escargots

Rough plate of cooked snails with parsley, part of Fun Facts about France
Escargots Public domain via Wikimedia

The French are the greatest eaters of snails.

The French eat 25,000 tonnes of snails (escargots) a year – equivalent to 700 million individual snails. There’s even a national Escargot Day – May 24.

According to archaeologists, escargots go back to prehistoric times; they became a favorite dish during the Roman Empire. The oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes believed to have been collected in the 1st century AD, has a recipe for snails.

One of the fun facts about France that I most enjoyed researching.

Adopting the Metric System

The French were the first to adopt the metric system.

The French didn’t invent the metric system but they were the first to officially adopt it in 1799 during the French Revolution.

Notice on wall in Provence listing units of measurement in the 17th century
Old measuring units in Provence in the 17th century Public domain via Wikimedia

It replaced the old impractical system which was based on the Carolingian model introduced by Charlemagne (800-814), which in turn was based on Roman measures. It’s estimated that in 1789 there were 700 to 800 different names for units of measurement in France. What is more, the units varied wildly. A lieue (league) was 3.286 kms (2.04 miles) in Beauce, north France, and 5.849 kms (3.63 miles) in Provence.

One of the most constant unit of measurement was Charlemagne’s pied du Roi (the king’s foot). Make what you will of this one.

Denim

Denim was first produced in the textile-making city of Nîmes.

The tough fabric was first produced in the late 17th century by weavers trying to replicate the way of producing serge, a popular heavy duty fabric.

Gold miner in 1850s Califnrnia. Squatting on earth with pan in front of him in water with old hat and old clothes from old photo
Gold minder in 1850s California Public domain via Wikimedia

Take the story on to Levi Strauss, the Bavarian who emigrated to the USA in 1848. In 1850 he headed west out to San Francisco. The Californian gold rush was on and the enterprising young man began selling sturdy work trousers to the miners. He started making them with tent fabric, but really hit the big time when he adopted sergé de Nîmes (denim – voila!).

Walking on stilts

Stilt walks in the Landes, France by Jean-Louis Gintract. Painting of stilt walkers above marshy land with sky in background
Stilt walkers in the Landes by Jean-Louis Gintrac Public domain via Wikimedia

The French were the first to use stilts.

The French claim that stilts were first used by shepherds in the marshy Landes in western France to watch their flocks and move around quickly.  

Stilts have been traced back to ancient Greece through literature and Namur in Belgium recorded fights on stilts in 1411. But it’s likely that France saw the first mass use of them, as they claim.

The Auvergnats and Paris Restaurants

Bouillon Chartier restaurant in Paris with Art deco decoration
Bouillon Chartier Restaurant C: Paris Tourist Office, David Lefrance

Who ran Paris restaurants after World War II?

After World War II the Auvergnats, who had earlier fled the poverty of the central France region, ran around 90 per cent of Paris cafés and restaurants.

I got his piece of information from the excellent book by Peter Graham, Mourjou, the Life and Food of an Auvergne Village. My house in the beautiful, remote Auvergne is in the Haute-Loire, the department directly east of the Cantal which is the area that the book is all about. But many of the experiences are exactly the same. If you like France, and French food, buy this book. That’s my excuse for this entry in my fun facts about France.

French the language of royalty in England

French was the language of royalty and the court from 1066 to the end of the 14th century in England.

William the Conqueror's Castle in Falaise, Normandy with round stone tower and square keep perched on hugerock
William the Conqueror’s Castle in Falaise © Calvados Tourisme

William the Conqueror and his nobles and army spoke a mixture of languages, with Old Norman being the most common. Introduced in 1066 with the French invasion, Old Norman was the mother tongue of every English king from William to Henry IV (1399-1413). In England this developed into a dialect called Anglo-Norman French.

Royal coat of arms with lion, unicorn, crown and mottoes in high colour
Royal coat of Arms Public domain via Wikimedia

the language on the royal coat of arms is still French. It appears in the motto of the British Monarch Dieu et mon droit (God and my right), and the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shamed be he who thinks evil of it).

We see this on our passport covers, even the new ‘Blue’ ones.

Cauliflower exports – how Brittany Ferries started

Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere leaving Portsmouth sailing between headland and city
Brittany Ferries leaves Portsmouth

Brittany Ferries was launched in 1973 by Alexis Gourvennec and fellow Breton farmers to export their cauliflowers and artichokes to the UK.

Britain was entering the Common Market in 1973 and the Breton farmers needed the best and quickest way to get their veggies over the Chanel. Hence the company, originally known as Armement Bretagne-Angleterre-Irelande, shortened to B.A.I. The first ship was named Kerisnel after a small Breton village known for its splendid artichokes. The company launched on January 1st with French, British and Breton flags flying and choirs singing carols.
More on getting to France from the UK

And Some Myths about France Dispelled

I think any article about the fun facts about France should dispel some of the myths out there. Here are three that I can disprove.

2 happy pigs in the French Alps. close up on one licking a stone with one in front with sun shining through ears with French Alps in background
Happy pigs in the French Alps Public domain via Wikimedia

Naming a pig Napoleon is illegal in France

NO! Nobody has found any evidence for this. The most likely explanation for it arising comes from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Find out more here.

Marie-Antoinette when told of the hungry poor said: “Let them eat cake”

Old painting showing execution of Marie-Antoinette on the guillotine in middle of photo with onlookers at foot, a cart, and a building to left
Execution of Marie-Antoinette Public domain via Wikimedia

NO! Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian Archduchess who married Louis XIV in May 1770 aged 14, became the most hated royal figure after the French Revolution. She was tried, found guilty and guillotined in October 1793 aged 37. The saying was invented and attributed to her in 1789 though it had been used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions written in 1765 when Marie-Antoinette was 9 years old.

Kilts were invented in France

NO! Of course all full-blooded Scots will rage at this myth, but how was it ever started? I found it in a Rough Guides list of French myths, which is surprising given the normal accuracy of Rough Guides.

One possible explanation comes from the ancient practice in Brittany and Normandy of kilt wearing. People from both regions came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Both the Stewarts and the royal House of Stuart have Breton origins. Alan Rufus, also called Alan the Red, was a cousin and knight in William’s personal retinue.

But the kilt only seems to appear at the end of the 16th century, starting out as the great kilt in SCOTLAND! This was a full length garment. The small or walking kilt that is common today developed in the late 17th century. It’s really the bottom half of the great kilt.

Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland Public domain via Wikimedia

I have really only touched the surface here. If you have more fun facts, please let me know.

More about France

Here are some more serious articles!

The new regions of France
Guide to French Departments
The 7 Main Mountain Ranges of France
The Longest Rivers of France