Normalement. Exceptionnellement.

Normally (typically.) Exceptionally.

Two concepts visitors (and residents of France) had better learn fast.

It’s been said the French love rules. What’s true is that some of their leaders have often loved nothing more than waking up in the middle of the night and write new rules to govern French life.

Napoleon I was one of these night-owls. During his relatively short rule, French life was codified, organized, and new institutions introduced. France famously lives with many of them today.


1811. A fire destroyed part of the building where the Emperor and his new wife Marie-Louise were celebrated by “le Tout Paris.”

Furious when he realized how poorly trained and inefficient Paris firemen were, Napoleon promptly issued a new decree introducing what remains a French exception: “Les Pompiers” would become a military corps under the supervision of the Prefect of Paris. “Les Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris” still operate this way in 2023.

Not all rules promulgated by the Emperor (or other leaders) would prove such inspired moves.


Circa 1800: Women willing to dress like men (i.e. wear pants) must seek a special authorization from the Prefecture de Police. Or be arrested.

Circa 1900: Women can’t wear pants unless they are holding a bicycle by the handlebar or a horse by the reins. Progress.

January 2013, Ministry of Women’s Rights: Women can wear whatever the heck they want including pants on Parisian sidewalks.


Another illustration:

Have you ever studied the French language? As an experienced instructor I can tell you nothing is more entertaining than announcing to baffled students: “HERE is the rule” only to add 30 seconds later “HERE are the exceptions.” (I kid, I kid.)

An urban legend says the French love rules. They don’t. They are just used to living with them. When they don’t approve of them they know how to bend or break them.

No need to harp endlessly on it. They won’t apologize for it. Breaking rules can be a sign of creativity and adaptability, a gesture of “resistance” in a society too lavish with rules. In fact, you’ll notice authorities may show some degree of tolerance for rule breaking.

Here’s the secret: Many in France believe rules are for other people only. Do as I say not as I do, if you will.

Yes, French life will challenge you especially if you prefer your daily tasks and interactions in the black and white zone.

Welcome to 352 Shades of Grey “à la française.” French life, les amis, is not monochromatic like an elegant Chanel capsule collection.

So don’t be surprised if businesses or public offices don’t announce schedule changes in advance or if rules change… “exceptionally.”

“Normalement” can switch to “exceptionnellement” quickly.

When that happens, just shrug like the French do. Find a plan B and move on.

Or come back at a later time.

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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