19 Best French Sayings, Proverbs and Idioms About Life

For centuries, the French have been renowned for their take on life and their study of it. In literature and philosophy, France has produced some of the world’s most famous and important writers and thinkers, many of whom have been obsessed in their search for the meaning of life. 

When compared to other countries, the French education system places great emphasis on philosophy. For example, all students studying for their baccalauréat have philosophy lessons and, for those studying the bac littéraire, there could be as many as eight hours a week dedicated to this subject.

Perhaps the French are onto something that many other nations haven’t thought of yet? Maybe their well-known revolutionary streak comes down to the fact that they are encouraged to think – to really think – from childhood.  

French philosophy

In this article, we’ll explore some typical French sayings about life, including well-known proverbs, idioms, and quotes from some of France’s finest writers and philosophers. 

As France (and its language) is often considered to be a place of love, we’ll start by looking at some French sayings about life and love.

French sayings about life and love

1. Il n’y a qu’un bonheur dans la vie, c’est d’aimer et d’être aimé – George Sand

Translation: There is only one happiness in life, and that is to love and be loved

Couple in love to demonstrate Il n’y a qu’un bonheur dans la vie, c’est d’aimer et d’être aimé

The 19th century novelist George Sand (otherwise known as Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), was way ahead of her time.

Choosing to eschew stereotypes, wear male attire, and smoke tobacco in public, she famously had a tumultuous – and possibly bisexual – love life, which included a troubled relationship with the Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin.

Her many relationships perhaps reflect her most famous quote in that throughout her life she was constantly searching for love.

2. Aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction – Antoine de Saint-Euxpéry

Translation: To love is not to look at each other, it’s to look together in the same direction

Couple looking in same direction to demonstrate Aimer, ce n'est pas se regarder l'un l'autre, c'est regarder ensemble dans la même direction

Since we’re talking about love and great authors, another famous French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, had a lot to say about love too.

The above quote, taken from his 1938 autobiographical essays about his life events, Terre des hommes, reflects the author’s thoughts on one of life’s most important aspects. 

3. Vivre sans aimer n’est pas proprement vivre – Molière

Translation: Living without loving isn’t properly living

Even 17th-century French comedic playwright Molière had his own, similar thoughts on love and life. It seems that the French really do have romance engrained in their history.

French sayings about life and existence 

4. Je pense, donc je suis – René Descartes

Translation: I think, therefore I am.

cogito ergo sum

Staying in the 17th century, we’re introduced to the most famous of French philosophers and the most famous of philosophical sayings. Originally written in French to reach a wider audience, this phrase was later translated into Latin as cogito ergo sum.

Descartes pondered about how we could know if our existence was real or just an illusion and thus because we can wonder about this, we cannot be an illusion. Deep!

5. Chacun voit midi à sa porte – French proverb

Translation: Everyone sees noon at his doorstep

Man at doorstep to demonstrate Chacun voit midi à sa porte

In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful French proverbs about life. I can just picture someone standing on their doorstep in the midday sun. But what does this French saying mean?

Fundamentally, it’s about how everyone sees things in their own way and is wrapped up in their own life.

6. L’enfer, c’est les autres – Jean-Paul Sartre

Translation: Hell is other people

Moving on from our previous saying about life, we’ll head to another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. This existentialist was famous for his exploration of otherness. This French saying came from Sartre’s play Huis Clos, meaning No Exit.

You’ll actually find this French saying being misinterpreted and misused. He was actually meaning that if we tie ourselves up in what others think of us, we’ll live in a hellish existence.

French sayings about life – ideas to live by

There are some great French idioms about life too. As with all idioms, translating them literally usually doesn’t work – unless we have the same expression in English of course.

But sometimes, we can work out what they might mean. Let’s take a look.

7. Il faut casser le noyau pour avoir l’amande

Translation: You must break the kernel to get the almond

Almond and its kernel to demonstrate Il faut casser le noyau pour avoir l’amande

In a similar vein to the English expression “no pain, no gain”, this is a good philosophy to live by. Sometimes you need to break something before you get to the good part.

8. Impossible n’est pas français – Napoleon 1er 

Translation: Impossible isn’t French

In English, we’d probably say “there’s no such word as can’t”.

This French slogan is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, which is quite fitting since he was part of the French Revolution and helped to develop France and its people into the society that exists today! So, as French sayings about life go, this one has a pretty awesome history!

9. De mauvais grain jamais bon pain

Translation: From bad grain never good bread

Making bread from grain to demonstrate 9. De mauvais grain jamais bon pain

Since we’ve just looked at a saying that epitomizes French society, it’s time we talked about something else the French are famous for: their bread. And wouldn’t it be a shame if bread wasn’t mentioned in our article on French idioms about life!

There is no real equivalent of this in English but essentially, it’s saying you can’t make something good out of bad ingredients.

10. La nuit porte conseil

Translation: The night gives advice 

Woman sleeping to demonstrate La nuit porte conseil

As best French sayings about life go, I love this one. In English, we tell someone to ‘sleep on it’ when they’re mulling over a decision. The French, though, is much more romantic.

I love the notion that as you sleep, the night advises you. It’s a little poetic and I love that.

11. L’habit ne fait pas le moine

Translation: the habit doesn’t make the monk

This French proverb reflects the role of Catholicism in French history and how it’s still important for many French people. In English, we might say “don’t judge a book by its cover” or “appearances can be deceiving”.

Basically, this means that just because someone is wearing a habit, it doesn’t mean that they’re actually a monk. 

There’s another version of this phrase that I love just as much – la barbe ne fait pas le philosophe (the beard doesn’t make the philosopher), which is also very “French”.

French idioms about life that are plain crazy

While a lot of French sayings about life make a lot of sense and we can work out their intended meanings, there are some that are almost impossible to get to the bottom of!

Using these sayings in conversations with French people will certainly make you sound very French indeed. 

12. Il y a plus d’un âne à la foire qui s’appelle Martin

Translation: There is more than one donkey at the fair called Martin

Donkey in fair to demonstrate Il y a plus d’un âne à la foire qui s’appelle Martin

Don’t jump to conclusions about what this French expression means… because that’s exactly what it means! When you say to someone “there is more than one donkey at the fair called Martin”, you’re saying “don’t jump to conclusions”.

13. Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe

Translation: Dogs bark, the caravan passes

Dog barking to demonstrate Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe

Between all the French sayings about life, this one doesn’t actually have a French origin at all. It’s believed to be Turkish in origin and it has been used since the end of the 19th century. 

It comes from the fact that people in Turkey would have guard dogs that would warn when camel trains were passing in proximity. The camels, however, were never upset or bothered by the barking and continued their journey without reacting.

A similar expression in English might be sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

14. On n’est pas sorti de l’auberge

Translation: we’re not out of the hostel/inn

This expression is potentially the oldest on this list of French sayings about life. It comes from the Middle Ages and was used by thieves who used the term “auberge” to denote a prison. Once someone was in prison, it was hard to get out.

In English, we’d use the phrase “we’re not out of the woods” in a similar way.

French idioms about life that just make sense

So, from the downright strange to the ones that just make sense. These French sayings about life are certainly true and do make us think a little. 

15. Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid

Translation: little by little, the bird makes its nest

Bird making nest to demonstrate Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid

It’s true; making a nest is a slow and steady process. To reach the end goal, the bird needs dedication and patience – and he doesn’t give up. A similar phrase in English is “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

Essentially, by saying this phrase to someone, we’re telling them to hang on in there and reassuring them that their hard work will pay off in the end.

16. Qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun – Erasmus

Translation: he who runs after two hares at the same time, catches none.

This adage, attributed to the Dutch theologian and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, has wonderful imagery. It means that a person needs to put all of their attention on one task if they want to do it well. If not, the end results won’t be as good.

17. Le temps est un grand maître, dit-on; le malheur est qu’il soit un maître inhumain qui tue ses élèves – Hector Berlioz

Translation: Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.

French composer Hector Berlioz wrote this in a letter in 1856, and how true it is! It’s said in a similar vein to the expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’.

18. La vie est un voyage au milieu de la nuit

Translation: Life is a journey in the middle of the night 

Dark streets at night to demonstrate La vie est un voyage au milieu de la nuit

Another poetic one for our best French sayings about life list. And it’s true: life is like travelling in the dark – we can’t see a map, we don’t have directions, and don’t know what’s around the next corner. I love the romanticism of this expression. 

19. La vie est un combat perdu d’avance

Translation: life is a battle, lost in advance

Clock and death to demonstrate La vie est un combat perdu d’avance

No truer word has been spoken; death is the only certainty in life and a battle we simply cannot win. And while we might read this expression a little morbidly, we can use it to ensure we make the most of each moment instead!

Final thoughts 

After reading through these 19 best French sayings about life, we hope you’re inspired! Isn’t it fascinating how expressions develop and become part of the language over time? Who knows what expressions the French will adopt into their lexicon over the next century!

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