Friday’s French – père de famille

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Now I bet most of you don’t know what this post is about. Père de famille, you say, “father of the family”? Don’t all fathers have families? And why not mère de famille? Aren’t père and mère enough?

Well, there is an added meaning. Of course. Un père de famille ne doit pas prendre de risques means that a man who has a wife and family to think about shouldn’t be taking any risks. We could say a family man as well in English. Une mère de famille pense toujours à ses enfants. Funny, but we don’t say a “family woman”.  I can think of a “woman with a family” or maybe “a wife and mother” and even “housewife” in some contexts. You may have other suggestions.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Believe it or not, père de famille and more specifically, bon père de famille, is also a financial term, which always amuses me.

Yesterday, I came across it when I was translating a takeover bid: gestion de la Société en bon père de famille. “Management of the company like a good family man” would be a literal translation but you certainly wouldn’t find it in a contract! I decided on “good, safe management of the Company”.

The expression often goes hand-in-hand with investment: placement de père de famille is what we call a gilt-edged or safe investment. Valeurs de père de famille are gilt-edged or blue-chip securities.

The masculinity of the expression is not surprising – French women were kept out of money matters for a very, very long time. It was not until 1965 that women no longer needed their husband’s consent to choose their own profession or open a bank account. Astonishing, isn’t it?

And it was much later – only I can’t find the date – that women were finally entitled to see and sign the family’s tax declaration. Up until then, the husband en bon père de famille, n’est-ce pas declared both his and his wife’s revenue and could refuse to even show her the declaration!

Women were given voting rights in New Zealand in 1893, in Australia in 1902, in the UK in 1918 (but you had to be 30, equal suffrage only came in 1928) and in the US in 1919 (though women could vote in Wyoming as early as 1868) while French women finally voted in 1944. Enough said.

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29 thoughts on “Friday’s French – père de famille”

  1. Thanks for this. Very interesting, the other day the bank manager used this term “…to manage the finance like pere de famille….” It implies that it is (still) the father who holds the purse string. Well, in most restaurants, the waiter always gives the bill to the man at the table. I am waiting the day my son (currently 4) gets the bill….

    1. When I invite my husband to a restaurant where they have two menus – one without prices for the woman and one with prices for the man – I always tell them on the phone beforehand “c’est madame qui invite” so that I get the “man’s” menu!

  2. Interesting article! I remember doing law in France and having this term in contract. I actually thought about the expression recently and wondered whether it was still used as often, now that more and more families have no father figure.

    1. Hello! The French aren’t really into politically correct and, as Angela shows in her comment, the expression is still very much alive in banks as well.

  3. Very interesting post. I was shocked when I opened a bank account in France and they would not accept that I was married but did not have the same surname as my husband. The bank officer advised me to put down that I was single instead.

    Recently in French classes we discussed the right to vote for women. Women in South Australia were given the right to vote in 1894 and voted for the first time in 1896. My understanding was that women in France were given the right to vote in 1944 and then actually voted for the first time in 1945.

    1. I found out about the banking laws early on and my cheque book has always had M Jean Michel Avril ou Madame Rosemary Kneipp on it.

      I didn’t realise that the vote in SA was in 1894. Always been a progressive state, hasn’t it?

  4. Many thanks for this phrase, which I have never noticed before, but no doubt will now. It infuriates me that I do and submit our household tax return, but all notifications automatically come in Simon’s name. We didn’t have a problem with the bank despite using different names, but our notaire has to be reminded every time that we are in fact married and he has a copy of our marriage certificate. I found that very curious, given that women sign with their maiden name on legal documents in France.

    1. It’s very contradictory, isn’t it? Australian laws about names have changed over the years (as I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts) but as you say, in France your maiden name is always used on legal documents and ID.

  5. A similar situation in regard to the English expression “human rights”. As you’ll be aware the French expression for this is “les droits de l’homme” or the rights of man (which it used to be in English for a very long time). At an Inter-Parliamentary Conference I attended years ago, the Canadian parliamentary delegation was led by a strong group of women members of parliament. They were struggling to get support for changing the French to something like “les droits de personne” so that it wouldn’t be gender limited. As you can imagine the French delegation (all men) were outraged at the very idea and fought strongly against. I tried to convince the person in my delegation who was to vote on this issue to support the Canadians but sadly failed. We watched the delegations vote (we were up towards the back). He triumphantly said “Just look at that, they’re all voting it down.” My reply: “Yes, and just look again at the voters – they’re all old men.” He went very quiet. It’s probably still the same. Best wishes, Pamela

    1. The Canadians are very aware of gender issues and have changed a lot of sexist vocabulary that has also been adopted in France. “Droits de l’homme” is a tricky one because they haven’t come up with a convincing substitute. “Droits de la personne” actually remains feminine. It used to throw me when Jean Michel would talk about “une personne” in a professional context whom I assumed was a man then use “elle” in the next sentence because he was referring back to the word “personne”!

      The current entry in Termium (, the Canadian terminology bank, gives the following:

      droits de la personne
      droits de l’homme
      droits civils
      droits civiques
      droits humains

      OBS – droits de l’homme : Le gouvernement fédéral et la province de Québec emploient l’expression «droits de la personne». «Droits humains» est incorrect.

      1. Tks Rosemary for the explanation. My memory kept telling me it was “les droits de la personne” but this just didn’t seem right because of the gender of “personne”. I guess there’s some reason why they can’t use “droits humains” ? Pamela

  6. “gérer ses affaires en bon père de famille” – not an easy one to translate. I was interested to see what you came up with. It definitely conveys the meaning – if not the French spirit.
    The saying will have to disappear one day, obviously, but I wonder if it will be soon. All my female friends here, married, in a relationship or single, manage their own budgets and bank affairs but I’ve never seen one infuriated with this expression. We tend to take a rather slack view on these things.

  7. Once again, I learn something interesting from you, Rosemary. When I lived in Paris “à l’époque,” I didn’t have enough money to warrant putting it in a bank and simply paid cash for everything. Life was much simpler back then!

    1. Have just remembered the English tax system had some similarities way back in the early 70s. My husband was a fulltime postgrad student at Cambridge. I was the one with a job and earning the income but under the British system at the time I’m pretty sure the tax form had to be completed by the man, even though it was the wife who was earning the money. Pretty sure it would have changed since then. Would be very surprised if modern day English women would take such a situation as philosophically as French women must. Cheers Pamela

      1. It is probably the pioneering spirit in Australia that gave women rights earlier than over this side of the world. I remember helping my sister-in-law to open her own bank account 30 years ago when she wanted to leave her husband. She didn’t think she’d be allowed to have one of her own!

  8. Amazing… Never forget that behind a language you have a culture, History, and a few other things. The expression ‘bon père de famille” comes from Roman Law (bonus pater familias) and is mainly used in Law-related documents. The english equivalent was (is?) ‘reasonable man’ (not woman).
    That is rather archaic and it will disappear, however I noticed that lawyers are not usually the quickest to adjust to changes… Remember until 5 years ago the UK judges still had this funny wigs ??? and both French and English lawyers still wear this (not) very sexy black dress in Court… What for?

    In french, like in english, homme is not only the male, it can be a person, a human being… And don’t you say mankind, not womankind, in english?
    The french language has no neutral, each word is either masculine of feminine, so many of us (most of us?) do not make any kind of link between gender and masculine or feminine.
    Is le jour, le chien, le vélo more “male” than la nuit, la panthère, la voiture? I don’t think so…
    OK we could say ‘les droits de la personne’ instead of ‘les droits de l’homme’…

    About the maiden name… In France one keeps his name all his life long. No matter if you are a man or a woman. All women’s official documents are in their maiden’s name. No bank will have an issue with that, it would be illegal. Common practice is to use the husband’s name when married, like in many countries, and surprisingly this name can still be used after a divorce…
    About the Tax system (Impot sur le revenu) you have only one document to fill (foyer fiscal) and it should be send to the couple not to the man… and the wife is entitled to pay it in full if she wants 🙂
    ‘Pour le paiement, un seul avis d’imposition est adressé au nom du couple. Il peut être payé indifféremment par l’un ou l’autre des époux.” (in

    On top of that, and here might not be the place to discuss it, it’s the man/woman relationship(s) that could explain many things -one way or the other- Having lived in UK for quite some years I noticed so many differences… I believe these relations (in the office, in the street) are much more relaxed in France… Not saying it’s better, not judging anything, just making a point that could explain a few things.

    Oh BTW can someone tell me when aboriginal people were entitled to vote in Australia? 🙂

    1. As you may have seen from one of the comments, “bon père de famille” is also used by bank clerks. We used to say “mankind” in English but it now considered politically incorrect and we use “humankind”.
      I absolutely agree that masculine and feminine nouns are grammatical but it is also a subtle way of showing masculine supremacy. By gradually changing the use of “homme” to mean both men and women, women will be seen as more equal to men.
      It’s funny about the maiden name in France. Although you do keep your maiden name throughout your life, very few women are aware of it and, as Kathy found out, even bank staff don’t realise that you can have your maiden name on a cheque book.
      With respect to the voting rights of Australian aborigines, it is terrible that they did not become true citizens until 1962 and even 1965 in Queensland (my home state) but I was talking about men verus women :).
      It’s difficult for me to make any comparison with male/female relationships in the UK and France because the only English-speakings country I have only lived in is Australia and that was a long, long time ago!

      1. Despite Ago’s comment that “homme” is increasingly being used to mean both men and women, I still can’t see that a noun that really did mean “man” can have any other than a male connotation. It’s like saying that “man” in English can also mean woman: it just can’t! I think all Australian women and am pretty sure English and NZ women too (I lived in UK 5 years and in NZ for 3) would agree. It just goes to show again the enormous cultural differences between anglo and French societies.
        Agree, shameful that Australian aborigines were given the right to vote so late. But I wonder about the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples in overseas French territories/colonies. Some of those came quite belatedly too and also in some cases only after bloodshed. I think of “les evenements” (1980s) in New Caledonia for example. Fortunately there have been great improvements since that time. Best wishes, Pamela

  9. Hi Rosemary my slightly nasty comment (and I apologise for making it) was to illustrate the famous proverb that we should ALL keep in mind:
    “On voit la paille dans l’oeil du voisin, mais pas la poutre dans le sien…”
    “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
    A lesson of humility for us all to remember.

  10. Just to clarify, when I had trouble opening my bank account I was trying to open it with the surname I always use, that of my previous husband. I do not use either my maiden name nor the surname of my current husband. The reasons for this are many. Suffice to say it didn’t fit in with French norms for banking.

    1. Oh I see! That is a very different story.
      Your name is A,
      your first husband name was B,
      and your new husband name is C….

      – By marrying Mr B you could use A or B, -art 225-1 CC-
      – Then you divorced and with Mr B’s consent or a judge’s decision you have kept B (as a “nom d’usage”) -art. 264 CC-
      – Then you marry Mr C and by law you can use C as a nom d’usage…

      So potentially now you could have 2 noms d’usage B and C…
      Can somebody have 2 noms d’usage at the same time? (because this is the case, no matter what you really want to do….) I don’t know. I would say no… but I’m no barrister…. and I understand why you want to keep B as a nom d’usage it makes perfect sense of course.

      I have the feeling it is very difficult to understand how a country ruled by Civil Law works when you come from a country were Common Law (aka Case Law) applies…. Everything seems so “heavy” and so complex…. and not many people are aware of this massive cultural difference….

      1. Up until quite recently in Australia, you could go by any name you wanted, provided that if someone asked you if “Joe Blow” was your real name and not the alias you were using, you replied “yes”. I know this from my father who was a supreme court judge.

        When I was married the first time, I had to have my Australian passport issued in my married name. After I divorced, I had to have it in my maiden name. When I remarried I assumed it was the same thing. However, in the meantime, the law changed and to have a passport in my married name, I would have had to have an official name change which would have been a lengthy (and costly) procedure while living outside the country. As a result my passport is in my maiden name. It caused a few problems when I first married though because I bought an airline ticket in my married name and then had to constantly prove using my French passport (I have dual nationality), that I was the same person. I could not travel to Australia on a French passport and needed a French passport to get back into France. Very complicated!

        1. LOL
          In most countries women have to/can use their husband’s name…
          Talking about Women’s rights it seems to me that a country were a woman, exactly like a man, can keep her name for her whole life no matter is she married, divorced, widowed, is much more respectful of equality than one who transforms the wording of “man” into “person” for the sake of it!
          Icing on the cake women can use their husband’s name if they want to do so, and they might keep this “nom d’usage (usual name)” when divorced even against the will of their ex, as a judge can make the decision 🙂
          A right that no man has!!!
          So, you see, no culture is better, nor worse, than another one, despite what some might think.
          Good evening to all!

          1. Ago, I certainly do not think any culture is better than any other. My Friday French posts are designed to explore differences between French and Anglo-Saxon expressions and language but certainly not to show any type of superiority.

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