How Accurate is Netflix’s Emily in Paris? Francophones Respond
Emily in Paris is a Netflix Original dramedy about an American expat in Paris. The eponymous Emily works at a marketing firm in the City of Lights, but struggles to be accepted by her French colleagues. As she navigates a variety of culture shocks, she slowly starts to make friends, and even falls in love with her neighbor.
It all sounds like a swell time of a TV show, a perfect opportunity to escape our dreary world of Zoom calls and Covid scares. North American viewers thought so at least, many of them raving over Emily in Paris’ delicious escapism. French viewers? Not too fond of it, to say the least. In fact, many have slammed the show for what they believe is a superficial and stereotypical portrayal of French people and culture.
So, how accurate is Emily in Paris in terms of its representation of the French? To find out, I spoke with Dr. Mustapha Hamil, who is part of the French Studies department at the University of Windsor. Dr. Hamil teaches courses in French on the francophone literature and culture of North Africa and the Maghreb. He also teaches courses in English on Arabic culture, literature, poetry, and cinema.
Dr. Hamil stayed in France from 1984 to 1988 to pursue his (first) doctoral degree at the University of Stendhal in Grenoble. He obtained his second doctorate in the US at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Hamil has not watched Emily in Paris, but we discussed some of the ideas about French culture that were presented in the show and how true they rang to his personal experiences and knowledge of the country.
To get a student perspective on the matter, I also chatted with Inès Mastellotto-Lesny, a recent graduate of the University. Inès graduated from the Art History and Visual Culture program in Fall 2021. Currently, she is a research assistant at UWindsor’s own Incubator Art Lab, where art and science merge. She aspires to hold some sort of curatorial role in the future.
Inès attended a French grade school and high school, which is where she learned the French language. She has done two exchanges to France: the first in 2016, while she was in high school, and the second in 2019, during her third year of University. She has also traveled to France with her family on a few other occasions. Inès is drawn to TV shows that take place in Europe, which is what brought her to watch Emily in Paris in the first place.
Some Limitations of this “Study”
Before responding to some of the ideas about French culture shown in Emily in Paris, Dr. Hamil, in very professorly fashion, made sure to point out some of the limitations of his commentary. For one, Dr. Hamil stayed in France in the 1980s, which was a very different France from that of today. He described his experiences in the country as being largely positive, but with the rise of extremism in Europe nowadays, North Africans and Maghrebins face racism with an intensity that he personally did not experience.
Additionally, Dr. Hamil points out that stereotypes can be very specific. “We are literature professors, and so we need to be very specific in our evaluations of things, and we have to base our comments or interpretations on specific situations,” he explained. For example, stereotypes can be about all of French culture, about the French culture of the workplace, about a specific region in France like Paris, and so on. Paris especially is very different from the rest of France, and so we shouldn’t read it as a representation of the whole of France.
Finally, as previously mentioned, Dr. Hamil has not watched Emily in Paris, so he can only speak from a general point of view and from his own personal experiences.
Are Parisians Cold and Distant?
One of the running themes of Emily in Paris is that the French, Parisians in particular, are cold and distant. Emily is not wanted at her new workplace—not by her snobby boss Sylvie and neither by her quirky coworkers Luc and Julien. They purposefully don’t invite her to lunch and they don’t really take her ideas seriously. She receives this same sort of treatment from French people outside of the workplace too. She spends most of season one, in fact, just trying to be accepted by those around her.
Dr. Hamil cautiously said that this view of Parisians as mean and standoffish may or may not be true. It’s not just expats that Parisians regard as foreign, but even people from other regions of France. “You have to look at it from the general mentality of the people of the city itself,” he said.
“Historically, Paris has been the center of everything going on in France. Paris was, of course, the source of the big ideas and big events and refined culture. So everything that comes from outside of Paris, even historically, was regarded as foreign, even within France itself. So if you come from Marseilles or from Lyon or from other parts of France to Paris, you’re still regarded as the hoi polloi, as not as refined as Parisians, so maybe that’s the same approach to this mentality that has been preserved even today.”
So, it may be true that it takes Parisians a while to warm up to foreigners, and that the exaggerated arrogance and sense of superiority that Emily observes from her coworkers has some grain of truth in it. But again, as Dr. Hamil emphasized, everyone’s experiences are different, and so we should be wary of making generalizations.
For Inès, the sort of refinement and elevated culture of Paris was very striking to her. She stayed in Nantes during her high school exchange and in Tours during her University exchange, but on the occasions when she visited Paris, she did not fail to notice the elegance of the locals in the street.
Their style, she said, “was rather simple in terms of color palette or pattern, but their clothes are very timeless and well-made, you can see it in the materials and the choices of garments that they wear.” Once, she was even in Paris once during Fashion Week. “There was this whole hustle and bustle, and I’m pretty sure I saw a celebrity on the streets—Paloma Elsesser, a plus-size model,” she said.
Although Inès personally did not experience any sort of coldness from Parisians or French people in general, it is clear from her testimony that Paris very much remains a hub of refined culture, which might explain the sense of distance that some foreigners may experience from locals.
Is Paris a Romantic City?
Emily’s fictional Paris is just that—fictional. The show presents a perfectly polished view of the city, with cinematographic views of the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The reality can be quite different despite Paris’ refinement, as Inès noted.
“It is the City of Light, so there is this grandeur and these conceptions that you have in your brain because of all the media portrayals of it. But it also really smells bad. Like, in France, you don’t have to pick up after your dog. There’s a lot of smells of urine, you smell cigarettes all over. The cobblestones are not necessarily prim and proper and clean. There’s a lot of moss growing, or it’s just kind of dirty. I think there are two Parises, honestly. So, there’s what we see all the time—the Eiffel Tower, the museums. But there’s also the Paris that is resided in and used by residents on a daily basis that’s not necessarily all glamorous. It’s more commonplace and utilitarian.”
In fact, Inès’ first experience in Paris involved having her phone stolen—so much for glamor. When she landed in Paris, she had to make her way to her school in Tours, but a labor strike by railway workers in January 2020 prevented her from taking the train. Instead, she had to take two buses, and the bus station where she had a layover is where she became a pickpocketing victim. “I had only been in the country for three hours at that point, but I screamed at the guy who stole my phone and I got it back,” she added.
The view of Paris and of France more generally as romantic partially comes from the French language itself, as Dr. Hamil pointed out. “We teach our students here in North America that French is a very romantic language, the most romantic language of the world, and people go there with this idea that there is romanticism everywhere,” he elaborated. “So when they talk to people in France, and of course the sound of, the musicality of the language induces the idea that it’s very romantic, but that does not mean that all people, the individuals who practice the language, are romantic.”
Ironically enough, however, Emily does not know a word of French when she lands in Paris.
How do French People Feel About Expats Who Only Speak English?
Part of the reason why Emily’s coworkers resent her so much is that she doesn’t speak any French. To be fair, in season 2, Emily does start to take French classes to improve her language skills, but she can still barely manage to thread together more than a few words or sentences. So, how true is it that the French dislike visitors who don’t speak or who don’t make an effort to speak the language of Mollière?
The answer is complicated, as always.
To start, people will naturally expect you to learn their language if you’re staying in their country for an extended period of time, whether that’s France or elsewhere. As Dr. Hamil pointed out: “Everywhere you go, people expect you to speak their language. Anywhere you go as a tourist or expat, you have to make the effort to at least know some words in the language, and that’s how you break the ice with and make connections with people.”
It’s not just that Emily’s ignorance of the French language prevents her from building connections with the people around her. It also reeks of American imperialism, as Dr. Hamil explained.
“The French will take it as: Who does she think she is? They may feel offended by the fact that she is there to be part of the community, and she doesn’t even try to speak French. We get into another consideration of the United States and France, and see a kind of superiority in it. You see it as more than just a personal thing, it becomes a question of, what, so you think that as the first power in the world that everybody will be a slave to you?”
Funnily enough, many anglophone students’ experiences of trying to speak French in France is that the French will respond to them in English! For example, while teaching in the US, Dr. Hamil and other professors would often take their students on trips to France. “We explained to our students that this is their opportunity to practice French, and so they had to use French wherever they went,” he said. “And of course we took them to different places and we told them to ask questions here and there. But the problem is when they ask questions in French, they get the answer in English.”
Dr. Hamil theorized that this could be due to the culture of tourism in France. Locals have come to expect tourists and may just be trying to be helpful. They may also just be showing off. Some students’ French may also be a bit broken, which explains why some locals respond to their French queries in English.
Inès’ own experiences in France confirm this phenomenon of French people replying to visitors in English even when addressed in French. Inès admits that her French is a bit “fragmented” compared to that of her classmates when she was in France, but they still appreciated her making the effort to speak their language. Nevertheless, when she spoke to them in French, they still wanted to reply in English to practice their own foreign language skills!
“My French friends wanted to practice their English because they’re not always granted that opportunity, but at the same time I wanted to practice my French. So, in tandem, I would speak to them in French and they would respond in English.”
If nothing else, one thing that Emily in Paris definitely gets right is how mortifying it can be for visitors to use a loan translation from English to French that they think means one thing but means something else altogether. In English, for example, we say ‘I’m full’ after a meal. Inès would translate this expression directly into French and say: ‘Je suis pleine’. She later made the unfortunate discovery that ‘Je suis pleine’ means ‘I am pregnant.’
Do French People Barely Work?
In Emily in Paris, offices don’t open until 10:30 a.m., people seem to take lunch breaks that last for hours, and nobody dares even mention the word work on weekends lest they break the law forbidding workplace communications after hours. This idea that the French barely work, that they’re even lazy, is implied throughout seasons 1 and 2.
It is impossible to say whether an entire nation is lazy and work-shy, but what we can say is that work culture in France is more relaxed than work culture in North America, which is why a foreigner might perceive the French as lazy. “In France, there is the sense that nothing is urgent, and that we don’t have to worry too much about the details,” explained Dr. Hamil.
“There’s a sense that everything is relaxed, there’s no pressure. So, for someone coming from this culture from the US, for example, she will find it very, very strange how people deal with work. When people from the US go to France, they feel that these people don’t have any consideration for time. Time for them is very loose. They deal with issues in a very relaxed way, while here we deal with them in a more expeditive way.”
This relaxed approach to work is not unique to France. It applies to the Mediterranean more generally, as Dr. Hamil told me. Whereas Americans, Canadians, and Germans are relatively strict with work schedules, Italians, Spaniards, French people, and others living in the Mediterranean are much less so. “It’s a cultural trait, and we don’t only have to blame France for that,” concluded Dr. Hamil.
Are French People Commonly Unfaithful in Relationships?
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Emily in Paris is its portrayal of relationships in France. A variety of characters cheat on their partners, and to Emily’s horror, the latter know about the affairs and don’t really seem to mind. In Emily’s France, infidelity isn’t a moral failing—it’s simply a thing to be expected.
According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, 49% of French people agreed that having an affair is morally unacceptable, which was the lowest percentage of the 39 countries surveyed. For comparison, 60% of Germans agreed that being unfaithful was morally unacceptable, which was the second-lowest percentage among surveyed countries.
Now, as we’ve already firmly established, one should not generalize and assume that all French people are accepting of infidelity, but perhaps it’s fair to say that French people are generally less shocked by it than citizens of other nations, statistically speaking.
Dr. Hamil could not comment specifically on how common cheating is in France, but if it is in fact more common in this country than in others, he speculated that it could be linked to the general culture of independence and rebelliousness inherited from la Révolution française. As a result of France’s history, religion and traditional morality may or may not also have less of a hold on French people when it comes to relationships.
There’s also the question of cultural differences between regions in France to consider. “Maybe in Paris, as a large cosmopolitan city, this is acceptable,” said Dr. Hamil, “but we cannot assume. Paris, as a place which is visited by millions of people, where there are many people who live in Paris who are not from Paris, maybe that has led to the breakdown of the old idea of faithfulness in marriage, but I may be wrong.”
Despite Emily in Paris’ less-than-nuanced representation of French culture, it has gained a loyal following. Netflix even renewed the show for a third and fourth season. So, what has contributed to its massive popularity?
“I think that people feel that they’re getting a taste for what France is like,” guessed Inès. “And yes, it’s taking place in France, but it is an English-language show. So, rather than it being completely foreign, there’s that appeal to an audience that speaks English.”
For better, or for worse.