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Some of the most obvious cultural differences between France and other countries include public holidays, school schedules, and hours of operation for stores and banks. This page documents the differences, and because we couldn't figure out where else to put it, also describes French electrical service!
On public holidays banks, shops, and almost everything else will be closed. They may even close in the afternoon of the day before. When a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many French will faire le pont (make the bridge) by taking off the day between the holiday and the weekend. If a holiday is coming, be sure to get enough cash while the banks are open. Some service stations will also close, so if driving is in your holiday plans, especially in the countryside, a full tank of gas is recommended.
Here are the major public holidays and the dates on which they occur:
French school children are on vacation five times a year: two weeks in February, two weeks in April, the summer months of July and August, one week for All Saints Day, and two weeks at Christmas. The dates for the February and April breaks are staggered among three schedules to help reduce highway congestion.
Tourist destinations are more crowded at these times. You can check the current school calendar at the web site of the French Ministry of Education (look for Le calendrier scolaire).
All of France keeps the same time. During the winter months this is one hour later than Universal Time (UT, formerly Greenwich Mean Time or GMT). France also observes daylight saving time. It begins on the last Sunday in March and ends on the last Sunday in October. Daylight saving time in France is two hours later than Universal Time. Here are some times around the world, relative to Paris time:
Banks in Paris and most of northern France are open 09h to 16h30 or 17h, Monday through Friday. Provincial banks are usually open 08h to 16h30, Tuesday through Saturday. Some banks close from 13h to 15h, and some are open Saturday mornings. Note that banks may close earlier than usual the day before a national holiday. Here are the hours for some Paris banks.
Most stores are open from 10h to 19h. In larger cities, some stores remain open until 22h. Outside of Paris they will often close for lunch from 13h to 15h. Follow this link to see the hours for a few stores.
France has 220-volt 50-hertz electrical service. Before you leave, check whether your electric shavers, travel irons, hair dryers, or other personal appliances will operate at the higher voltage. If not, you must buy new appliances or bring a voltage converter, also called a transformer. Dual-voltage hair dryers are quite easy to find, and electric shavers are often dual-voltage, so you may not need a transformer. If you find yourself in Paris without a converter, try the BHV.
Remember that outlet prongs are shaped differently. France uses European-style plugs, having two round pins and requiring the use of mechanical plug adapters for American appliances. These are inexpensive and available from many sources, including hardware stores. Keep in mind, however, that plug adapters are not electrical converters; they merely adapt the plug so it can be connected.
Finally, since current alternates at 50 cycles, not 60 as in the U.S. and some other countries, expect your dual-voltage hair dryer, for example, to run a little slower.