Changing Values in France

Jean-François Tchernia

Sociologist, Tchernia Études Conseil, Paris


French society has changed considerably over the last 20 or 30 years. There are a number of economic, social and demographic indicators that reveal considerable advances, such as the fall in birth rate, the drop in the number of marriages and the rise in divorces, the appearance and spread of single-parent families, the increased time given over to studying, the prolongation of childhood, the growing importance of activities for the elderly, the fall in the number of practising believers, the rise in worry over a lack of safety, and the widening gap between citizens and institutions and the political class. The results of the Values Study Survey reflect these changes, but they also enable us to go beyond the mere statement of fact. An analysis of the opinions expressed in the survey reveals the latent tendencies and systems of values that govern the actions of individuals in spheres such as morality, religion, politics, the family, social relations and employment. France has participated since the very beginning in the European Values Study (EVS) into Europeans’ values, as Jean Stoetzel and Hélène Riffault have been members of the founding group of the surveys since 1979. Both Stoetzel and Riffault had played an active part in earlier surveys by conducting systematic examination of the data on values gathered in France and in the European surveys of previous years.

The French team also contributed to the evolution and direction of the first version of the questionnaire in 1980. Specifically, Stoetzel presented the results of the first European survey on The Values of Today, and Riffault led the 1981 and 1990 surveys in France. From 1990 onwards, the team responsible for the survey in France was organised within the ARVAL (Association for Research into Value Systems), whose members include researchers who play an active role in the Values Survey, including Pierre Bréchon, president of ARVAL since 1999, Olivier Galland, Elena Game, Nicolas Herpin, Yves Lambert, Yannick Lemel, Etienne Schweisguth and Jean-François Tchernia. The ARVAL team published two books on the values of the French, one in 1994 and another in 2000, and produced two special issues of the Futuribles journal in 1995 and 2002, both of them entirely given over to Europeans. The 1999 survey in France was administered to a sample of 1,615 people who were representative of the French population and all aged over the age of 18, in accordance with the quota sampling method.

A further sample of 206 people aged between 18 and 29 were also questioned in order to draw up more precise analysis for this age group. The interviews were conducted in private between March and April 1999 in the subjects’ homes, and employed a questionnaire that took approximately one hour to complete. The following document presents the main results of this latest survey in France and Europe-wide, indicating the margins of difference between the French and their European neighbours. Lastly, it offers the resources to understand the state of affairs regarding values in France, either by showing the changes in people’s opinions or by analysing the effect of personal and social characteristics on these opinions. The survey results that are presented are grouped into seven main themes:

  • view of life.
  • sociability and social relations.
  • work.
  • family.
  • morality and the place of religion.
  • politics.
  • nation and state.

View of life

The Values Survey looks at various questions to do with the overall view of life of the French and citizens in other European countries.These questions deal particularly with two main themes: life and individuals’ moral standards. In France, the two issues that emerge as especially important are the family and work. All, or almost all, the French believe that their family is very important in their lives, and two out of every three view work as being very important.There are two areas of relative importance: one in three holds friends to be very important; and just over one in three think that leisure is very important.

Lastly, hardly anyone believes that politics or religion are very important in their lives.These opening results highlight two very characteristic traits among the French: their emotional investment in their jobs and their lack of interest in religion. The French seem to be relatively content. Almost one in three declares themselves to be very happy, a feeling that has increased during the 1990s.They also seem to be relatively satisfied with their lives: just under one in two says that they are very satisfied with their life. State of mind varies according to age and whether the individual has suffered traumatic or stressful situations in their life, such as a separation, divorce, death of a partner or unemployment. Even so, it should be noted that the frame of mind of the French would seem to be slightly worse than that of its neighbours in northern Europe (the United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland) or to the east (Germany,Austria and Luxembourg). This trait is even more pronounced in Italy, Spain and Greece, and would seem to be characteristic of Mediterranean countries: as can be seen from the declarations of those surveyed, their frame of mind is worse than that of other European countries.

Sociability and Social Relations

Sociability and the quality of social relations occupy an important place in the organisation of a society’s values. The Values Survey looks at this issue, in particular through indicators to do with commitment to associations and spontaneous trust. Just under one in two French people are members of an association. Involvement in associations is slightly lower amongst the young and people with a low level of education, but nevertheless remains relatively high in these categories. Membership of associations tends to be lower amongst the younger generations, and those organisations they do join are above all sporting and cultural associations, in which case membership is more an expression of participation in a leisure activity rather than a true commitment to a cause led by an organisation.

To conclude this theme, it is worth noting that involvement in associations is lower in France than in other European countries, in particular Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Belgium. In France, unlike in many European countries, social relations are not usually characterised by trust: three out of four French consider that it is necessary to be prudent in their relations with others, as opposed to the European Union average of two out of three. According to these two indicators on spontaneous trust and membership of associations, the French would seem to devote themselves less easily to social relations than other Europeans, though this is not true of relationships with friends.


Regardless of their age or social position, the French deem their jobs to be important and view work as a place for personal and social growth. Nevertheless, this characteristic, which is traditional in France, is tending to change: firstly, work is of relative importance to young people, even if they have worked hard to achieve a high level of education; and secondly, of all Europeans, the French are those who would most like to see a reduction in the importance of work in their lives. In Europe as a whole, the relationship with work is undergoing change. Two trends have been observed: firstly, expectations are focused more on personal aspects than material success; and secondly, human relations are becoming increasingly important.

These two changes are linked to a change in the way work is viewed, which is now seen less as a social or financial necessity and more as a goal in terms of personal growth. Nevertheless, other areas of expression that compete with work may appear, such as sport, association activities, cultural activities, etc. In the case of cultural activities, work is seen above all as a way of earning a living. This change is less evident amongst people under 40 as they are less influenced by the traditional work ethic and are more likely to call into question the primacy of work over their private lives.

The Family

The family is of central importance in European societies. The EVS survey looks at this value from several angles and in particular through two themes: marriage and the desire to have children. The French, like most Europeans, continue to believe that marriage is important and do not agree that it is an antiquated institution. They also believe that a stable relationship is essential if one is to be happy. Nevertheless, marriage is increasingly losing favour, especially amongst the young, a trend observed since 1990: of all the countries in the European Union, France is the country where the view that marriage is an outmoded institution has spread most. The majority of French people see marriage as first and foremost a place where the couple can fully develop.When the French are asked what are the keys to the success of a marriage, they put first aspects to do with the quality of the relationship: mutual respect, faithfulness, understanding and sharing. In contrast, factors to do with the cultural or social environment and living conditions are deemed to be of less significance.

For French men and women alike, having children is a factor associated with personal growth and choice. Abortion is relatively well accepted in France. On the theme of children, the French are close to the Danes, for whom having children is a personal choice that contributes to their happiness. In this, the Danes and the French are unlike other European countries. In France, relations between parents and children are characterised by certain duties to each other: parents are expected to do everything possible for their children, and children owe a duty of love and respect to their parents. Most European countries share the same views, with the exception of countries in the north of Europe, such as Holland, Sweden and Denmark.

Morality and the place of religion

The French have a relativistic view of good and evil: for most of them, good and evil are never entirely clear and, moreover, depend on the circumstances. Like almost all Europeans, the French distinguish two main types of moral problems: those to do with one’s private life, such as sexual problems, life and death; and those to do with public life. In other words, the French distinguish between public affairs and individualistic behaviour. They are more permissive towards private behaviour, as there is increasing tolerance towards private life, whereas they have become stricter as regards public morality. One characteristic of this trend towards increased strictness over public morality is people’s high regard for the institutions that maintain public order.

France is not a religious country.There is a widespread belief in God (more than one in every two French people) but only a minority state that they believe in an afterlife, sin, hell or paradise. Barely one in two French people declare that they profess a particular religion—most of those who do are Catholics—and one in 18 people goes to mass at least once a month. Virtually all the criteria to do with religion, apart from beliefs, have declined in every age group over the last 20 years. Secularism and the weak religiosity of France distinguish it from the rest of the European Union: it is one of the two countries (the other being Holland) where almost one in two people declare that they profess no faith whatsoever. The countries with the largest number of practising believers are Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Austria. The churches have been relegated to a spiritual role, which is moreover recognised by most French people, but it has less credibility when it comes to providing a response to family and social problems or even moral guidance. In contrast, in some European countries, such as Italy and Portugal, churches are recognised as moral guides.


The French involve themselves very little in political life. For most, it is an area that is unimportant in their lives. Moreover, they rarely discuss politics and one in three never talks about politics. Nevertheless, the French are capable of mobilising in order to protest: two out of three French people have been on a demonstration. There has been an observed rise in the tendency to protest in this way in France and in other European Union countries. Even so, the propensity to take part in protest movements is particularly high in France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Holland and Denmark.

The populations of most European countries are satisfied to some degree with the functioning of democracy in their countries, although in 1999 dissatisfaction predominated in Belgium, Greece and Italy and to a lesser degree in France. The French strongly support democracy, though some also demonstrate an interest in other political systems: one in three approve of the idea of a strong man governing the country, and almost one in two approve of the idea of a government run by experts.

Nation and state

Like other Europeans, the French feel closest to the life of their locality or region: it is at this level that they seem best able to understand political postures. Nevertheless, the French feel a sense of attachment to the nation, which they express especially when they state that they are proud of their country. Confidence in institutions varies widely according to the institution and the country. In particular, confidence in social protection institutions, such as health and social security, is high in all countries—and especially France—except Greece, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Germany. There is a relatively high level of confidence in the European Union in France, though less than in Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Spain.

There has been a decline in French confidence in the European Union since 1990. Confidence in the administration and Parliament is low, unlike in Denmark and Portugal. With regard to confidence in the institutions that maintain law and order, traditionally it is lower amongst leftwing circles than rightwing, though the difference has narrowed: leftwing French people have increasingly more confidence in the army and the police. This increase in confidence in the institutions that maintain law and order is, moreover, one of the results highlighted in the last survey on values in France. The French support the notion of a market economy: they believe that competition is a good thing, that the state should give companies greater freedom and that the unemployed should accept any job offered to them at the risk, if they do not, of losing any benefits. France can easily be compared with the European average in this respect: the more liberal countries are Germany, Austria and Sweden; the least liberal are Belgium, Greece, Spain, Holland and Portugal.

A minority of French people are opposed to this tendency and would prefer a more social approach: people on the left are much more predisposed towards this vision of the economy. Three out of every four French people are of the opinion that social justice consists of guaranteeing that the basic necessities, such as food, accommodation, clothing, education and health, are covered for everyone. Those who prioritise this approach tend to be leftwing and to have higher educational qualifications. The importance accorded to this issue is especially high in France, Greece, Portugal and Ireland.


This rapid review of the dominant values in France puts some of the powerful tendencies in French society into perspective. The first is that the French are characterised by their very selective sociability and at the same time by a clear demand for financial solidarity. Reconciling these two traits gives the state a privileged role and makes it the mediator of the social contract and the body that meets expectations to do with social justice. This central position of the state is born of the political philosophy on human rights and the strong, centralising Catholic culture that characterised France for so long: even though the French have drifted away from religion, vestiges of it can still be perceived in the country’s political and social functioning. The second tendency is connected to the relationship with politics. The growing divide between the French people and their political leaders and institutions has gone hand in hand with a renewed expectation of authority and public order.

This combination of opposition amongst the scenarios of state authority and a high demand for order mean that a not insignificant minority of French people support the idea of non-democratic government systems, such as the country being led by a strong figure or by experts. This change in the relationship between French people and politics is not to be scorned and is unquestionably the reason for the results obtained by Jean-Marie Le Pen at the presidential elections. Furthermore, France is tending to fall in line with the general shift in mindset that can be seen in most developed countries, above all those in the European Union. This being the case, it is worth emphasising two traits. The first is that the French, like many other Europeans, especially those living in northern Europe, increasingly advocate much greater individual freedom on moral questions. There is increasing permissiveness in France, as well as in a number of other European countries, towards individual choices and other issues such as sexuality, euthanasia and suicide.

People’s habits have not necessarily changed, but the new tendencies now are for them to situate themselves more on the side of tolerance than prohibition. Another point in common between France and many other European countries is that there would seem to be an evolution in the way people view the social settings in which social interaction occurs, principally the family and work. The family, which is of considerable importance in the eyes of Europeans in general and of the French in particular, is coming to be seen from another perspective: it is no longer as important as a social entity that confers recognition and an identity on its members, but more a place of loving security that also provides opportunities for personal growth. With regard to work, the monetary benefits and social status it offers are valued less, whereas the opportunities it provides for personal expression, integration in a pleasant social framework and a sense of achievement are valued more. In short, in these social settings, such as the family and work, the French, like most Europeans, are becoming increasingly more post-materialistic.

A comparative study of the values of the French and of the other European countries reveals that France is characterised by the fact that it has particular tendencies of its own as well as other trends in which it closely resembles its neighbours in the European Union. This study also puts into perspective some of the major events that have taken place in France as it is today. Observers and analysts have a responsibility as scientists and commit themselves fully to an undertaking like the European Values Study, given that they have to ensure that the results that will be employed by others are meaningful. Nevertheless, their responsibility as citizens is open to question in that they too move within this realm of values to which political and economic leaders pay special attention.