13 great French proverbs, sayings and idioms – and their meanings

The French language is one of the most romantic in the world (and not as difficult as people think!), and to showcase this we have compiled a list of 13 great French proverbs, sayings and idioms – and their meanings. It’s worth noting that these are only some of the many expressions that exist in France.

1. L’habit ne fait pas le moine

Translation: “The vestment does not make the monk.”

Meaning: “The clothing does not make the person.”

This is a proverb that is often used to describe someone who is not what they seem – for example, dressing up in nice clothes does not mean that someone is good or kind.

2. L’argent ne fait pas le bonheur

Translation: “Money doesn’t bring happiness.”

Meaning: “Money doesn’t make you happy.”

This is a proverb that we tend to agree with. While money can give us lots of things, it does not necessarily bring people happiness and fulfilment in life. It’s also often used when someone experiences loss – for example, saying “you would be happier if only you had more money” implies that this person has lost out on something because they do not have enough wealth.

The phrase was popularized by the French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) in his novel Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot). In the book, Vautrin tells Eugene: « L’argent ne fait pas le bonheur, mais il y contribue. » (Money doesn’t make you happy, but it helps.)

3. C’est la vie

Translation: “That’s life.”

Meaning: “That’s just the way things are.”

This is a phrase that is often used to express resignation – for example, when something bad happens and there’s nothing we can do about it. It captures the idea that life is full of ups and downs, and sometimes things don’t go our way no matter how hard we try.

4. Il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud

Translation: “You have to strike the iron while it is hot.”

Meaning: “You have to take advantage of the moment.”

This proverb is about seizing opportunities when they come up, because they might not present themselves again. It’s often used in business or in situations where time is of the essence.

5. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir

Translation: “It is better to prevent than to cure.”

Meaning: “It is better to take precautions than to try and fix things after the fact.”

This proverb speaks to the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. By taking preventive measures, we can avoid many problems down the road. This is especially relevant in areas like health and safety.

6. Que faire? – C’est une question sans réponse

Translation: “What to do? – That’s a question without an answer.”

Meaning: “There is no easy solution to this problem.”

This proverb highlights the fact that some problems are just too difficult to solve. When we’re faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, it’s useful to remember this saying and have patience. There might not be an immediate answer, but eventually we will find one.

7. Tout vient à point à qui sait attendre

Translation: “Everything comes in due time to him who knows how to wait.”

Meaning: “Good things come to those who wait.”

This proverb speaks to the value of patience. If we are willing to wait, eventually we will receive the things we desire. This is especially true in regards to relationships and personal growth.

8. Il ne faut pas jeter le bébé avec l’eau du bain

Translation: “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Meaning: “Don’t get rid of something just because it has some problems.”

This proverb is about not overreacting or making hasty decisions. Just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s worth getting rid of entirely. There might be a solution to the problem, or at least ways to make the situation better.

9. L’union fait la force

Translation: “Unity makes strength.”

Meaning: “Working together makes us stronger.”

This proverb is about the power of teamwork. When we work together, we can achieve things that we wouldn’t be able to on our own. This is especially important in times of difficulty or adversity.

10. Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué

Translation: “You don’t sell the bear’s skin before you have killed him.”

Meaning: “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

This proverb is a warning against being too optimistic – it’s saying that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and assume everything will go according to plan. There are many factors that we can’t control, and getting too confident or comfortable is dangerous.

11. Cherchez la femme!

Translation: “Look for the woman!”

Meaning: “There’s always a woman behind scandals.”

This proverb highlights how women are often blamed for things they aren’t directly responsible for – it also implies that men take more responsibility than they deserve. This saying has evolved from its origins as an allusion to adultery, but today it applies more broadly to any situation where someone else gets accused of wrongdoing.

12. La patience est mère de toutes les vertus

Translation: Patience is the mother of all virtues.’

Meaing: ‘Being patient leads us to kind and understanding towards others.’

This proverb is about the importance of patience – without it, we are more likely to act impulsively and make mistakes. Patience allows us to see things from a different perspective, and it helps us to be understanding towards others. This is especially important in relationships.

13. À qui la faute?

Translation: “Whose fault is it?”

Meaning: “Who’s responsible for this mess?”

This proverb asks who is at fault for a particular situation. It can be used as a way of assigning blame, or simply trying to understand what went wrong. This saying is often used when there’s been a mistake or someone has been hurt.