What to Expect at a French Wedding

Two ceremonies, no bridesmaids, and plenty of Champagne!

French wedding custom artwork

Photo by Charline Jay Photographie; Art by Elizabeth Cooney; Courtesy of Vanessa Monet 

Universally, a wedding is about three Cs—ceremony, commitment, and celebration—but so much of the experience depends on where you are in the world. In France, many wedding traditions date back centuries, including who stands with the couple at the altar and how many ceremonies take place (hint: it's two). We called upon French wedding planners Mylène and Geoffrey of White Eden Weddings, along with French bride Vanessa Monnet, for a complete breakdown of what you should expect if you have the pleasure of attending a French wedding anytime in the near future.

Meet the Expert

Husband and wife Mylène and Geoffrey are the destination wedding planners and designers of White Eden Weddings, located in Cannes. The couple specializes in organizing and coordinating weddings in the South of France.

Though a few of the more dated traditions are pretty much defunct (thankfully, most brides are no longer forced to drink the mysterious contents of a chamber pot brought to them by their guests for the Pot de Chambre ritual), there are still many lovely displays of France's romantic history that modern couples choose to incorporate into their wedding day.

Before we delve into French wedding customs and traditions, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

  • How will the newlyweds say their vows? The words "I do" in the context of a wedding don't directly translate into French. Instead, couples respond to marital prompts with "Je le veux," which means, "I want it." There's something about this connotation of desire versus compliance that feels poetic, romantic, and very French, non?
  • What should I wear to a French wedding? The guests' attire at French weddings is "classic," says Mylène. "Women wear dresses and men wear suits. Sometimes the to-be-weds ask for a specific dress code—either a level of formality, like black-tie or white-tie, or a specific color or theme." Women may opt to wear a hat or fascinator.
  • Should I bring a gift? Very few French couples have registries, and most just ask for money. Many weddings have un livre d'or or "guestbook" set up with an adjacent box for donations. If the couple does have a registry, it is called a liste de mariage, but they are uncommon.
What to Expect at a French Wedding
Jiaqi Zhou/Brides 

Learn all about French wedding customs and traditions below, and don't be surprised if you come across one or two that make you say, "Je le veux."

01 of 27

Fiançailles

Man proposing to wife at the beach

Alexey Karamanov / Getty Images

Fiançailles translates to "engagement," and it's quite a big deal in French culture. "The proposal is usually a big event, in the context of a romantic trip somewhere symbolic," Monnet says. "Ours was in the desert of Atacama in Chile." After the ask, French couples may plan an engagement party for the families, close friends, and future witnesses. "This bringing together of families is an important tradition that most French couples respect," says White Eden Weddings.

02 of 27

Trousseau

Gold bridal accessories

Photo by Amanda K 

A trousseau is a collection of the bride's personal laundry and linens that, at one time, her parents provided to her and her new husband for their wedding day. In the United States's adaptation, a trousseau also included bridal accessories, jewelry, lingerie, toiletries, and makeup that were all stored in a wooden hope chest. Since many French and American couples now live together before the wedding, it's no longer as relevant.

Instead, brides may opt to have a lingerie shower or bridal shower to receive those types of gifts. Monnet compares it to our contemporary understanding of a registry. "Nowadays it is called a liste de mariage," she says, though she mentions again that they're uncommon, almost always online, and "instead of linens, couples will ask for things like cash contributions to a fantastic honeymoon."

03 of 27

White Ribbon-Cutting

Newlyweds walking through white sheet

Photo by Thomas Papaterpos; Courtesy of Vanessa Monnet 

It used to be customary in small French villages for the groom to collect his bride-to-be from her home prior to the ceremony with a sort of a caravan. The procession was led by musicians alongside the bride and her father, while the groom and his mother followed at the very back. Before entering the chapel, children would stretch out white ribbons to block the bride's path, forcing her to cut them to pass through.

The tradition was originally meant to symbolize the bride overcoming obstacles married life might send her way. In contemporary times, Monnet speculates that the ritual may have evolved into the cutting of a heart in a white sheet for the bride and groom to go through together, as she and her now-husband did at their reception.

04 of 27

Ceremony

Bride and groom at altar

Photo by Jamie English 

French couples typically have two ceremonies—a civil and a symbolic service—over the course of two days. "The civil ceremony is still very important in the French spirit," White Eden Weddings tell us. "Firstly because it’s the only ceremony that makes the marriage official." Oftentimes, the civil ceremony is held the day before the rest of the wedding celebration with only close family and witnesses attending. "They keep it very intimate and simple," says WEW.

"The 'real' wedding is the day after and has more meaning, whether it's at a church or just a more symbolic, secular ceremony." The number of church ceremonies is decreasing as people in France and around the world have fewer religious ties, but Mylène and Geoff also think it has something to do with stateside brides. "We think symbolic ceremonies are becoming more and more important as a result of American influence," they say.

05 of 27

Livret de Famille Booklet

Bride signing document with priest

Photo by Charline Jay Photographie; Courtesy of Vanessa Monnet 

The official document that legalizes your marriage is both "mandatory" and a "strong symbol that literally shows you're now creating your own family," says WEW. "It's used your whole life, and your children's names and identities will be added to it."

06 of 27

Wedding Party

Wedding party with bride and groom

Photo by Rebecca Yale 

Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, French couples have témoins or "witnesses" that stand next to them during the ceremonies and sign the wedding registry. They can be of any age or gender, and usually wear what they please. Monnet chose her three sisters, while her groom chose his brother, sister, and best friend. However, WEW says more and more couples are opting to have bridesmaids and groomsmen in the more Westernized sense these days.

07 of 27

Flower Girls and Ring Bearers

Flower girls with bride and groom

Photo by Jamie English

Flower girls and ring bearers have always been common findings at French weddings. Many times the flower girls and ring bearers will be dressed in "fancy, matching" outfits.

08 of 27

Le Cortège

Groom and mother walking down the aisle

Juanlu Real 

This term refers to the act of the groom and his mother escorting each other down the aisle. "French people are usually very shy and don't like to parade," explains WEW. "To be honest, we know more than one mother who would've been very angry if her son had tried to opt out." The father of the bride accompanies his daughter in the same fashion.

09 of 27

The Bride

Bride posing on a staircase in her gown

Photo by Rebecca Yale 

Traditionally, the bride will wear a white or off-white wedding dress, or la robe de mariée, with a train and veil.

10 of 27

Flowers for the Virgin Mary

Bride and groom laying flowers in front of Virgin Mary statue

Photo by Charline Jay Photographie; Courtesy of Vanessa Monnet

During some religious ceremonies in the South of France, the newlyweds-to-be will lay flowers at the feet of the statue of Virgin Mary. "It's like an offering to have her protection in return," explains Monnet.

11 of 27

Les Jeunes Mariés Exit

Newlyweds exit from the ceremony

Nancy Ebert 

When les jeunes mariés, or "the newlyweds," leave the church, they are generally showered with grains of wheat, rice, or flower petals, which can be considered symbols of prosperity and fertility.

12 of 27

Reception or Repas de Noces

Guests toasting at a wedding reception

Photo by Molly Jo Collection 

In French, the reception or "wedding meal" is called repas de noces, and as we've hinted throughout—it's a very good time. The number of attendees typically falls in the 200-300 range, and they're here to party: French weddings can go as late as 7 a.m. the following morning!

13 of 27

Reception Décor

Table settings at a French wedding reception

Photo by Rebecca Yale; Event Planning by Matthew Oliver Weddings 

Recently, French brides have become increasingly concerned with reception decoration, according to WEW. "French couples used to pay more attention to the atmosphere and dining, but now it's becoming a trend to have very elegant styling," they explained. "Everything from long wooden tables with rustic tableware in the middle of a lavender field to refined floral arrangements in a gorgeous château."

14 of 27

Le Vin D'honneur

Couple enjoying cocktail reception

Photo by Amanda K 

The cocktail hour (technically hours) of the wedding usually lasts two to three hours instead of the American, British, or Asiatic standards of one to one-and-a-half hours, and it's the most important time of a typical French wedding day, WEW tells us. "After the ceremony, it's an occasion to gather everyone around for quality food and drinks—mostly wine."

15 of 27

La Voiture Balai

Bride and groom arrival to their wedding

Photo by Charline Jay Photographie; Courtesy of Vanessa Monnet 

At the end of the cocktail hour, the newlyweds will make their entrance in the "broom car" or la voiture balai. "In our case, we arrived on a scooter, which had a little carriage at the back, but many couples will arrive in a horse carriage or vintage car," says Monnet.

16 of 27

The Meal

A plate of miniature French appetizers

Photo by Rebecca Yale 

"The first thing French couples absolutely want to have is French food and French wine," says WEW. "As cliché as it seems, French people are proud of their gourmet heritage and don't want to miss any opportunity of expressing it." (For WEW weddings lately, that's meant lots of local wine trucks—especially in the South of France).

Just be careful not to fill up on hors d'oeuvres during Le Vin D'honneur—a hard charge considering you probably won't sit down for dinner before 9 p.m. Late-night onion soup was a must-have for generations past, says WEW. "It was supposed to be served at the end of the party, very, very late—like 4 or 5 a.m.—before guests left to go to sleep, but it's slowly disappearing."

17 of 27

Champagne

Champagne tower

Photo by Logan Cole 

Of course, the champagne is flowing at French weddings. We'd heard mention of a French couple or two taking off the top of a bottle with a saber in a ceremony called "Sabrage," but WEW was dismayed to hear this. "Never!" they told us. "In France, Champagne is not entertainment; it's a beverage you savor."

18 of 27

La Coupe de Mariage

Newlyweds toasting with champagne

Photo by Amanda K 

The Coupe de Marriage was typically an engraved, two-handled cup passed down as a family heirloom that the newlyweds would use to toast each other for the first time. Nowadays? "Couples usually just toast with regular champagne glasses," says WEW.

19 of 27

Toasts

Bride and groom giving a toast

Photo by Amanda K 

At French weddings, the newlyweds start off the toasts at dinner by greeting their guests and thanking them for being present. Then, the floor is open. Monnet says that generally family members make speeches while the witnesses take care of the entertainment.

20 of 27

Entertainment

Fireworks

Rebecca Yale; Event Planning by Matthew Oliver Weddings 

"The entertainment has become really important," says WEW. "In the French culture, you literally can't be bored at a wedding." For their part, WEW has brought in aquatic shows, live cooking demonstrations, and sketch artists. It's also common for close friends and family of the newlyweds to perform a personalized bit for the couple. While Monnet has seen guests become everything from slideshow prompters to magicians to musicians, at their wedding, the groom's best friend strummed guitar, and they ended the night with a fireworks show.

21 of 27

Father-Daughter Dance

Bride and father during father-daughter dance

Photo by Forged in the North

This worldwide practice is still a thing, WEW tells us. "It's a tradition that the bride and her father open the ball, and then the father gives the bride away to the groom during this first dance, and the bride and groom finish it together." For everyone else, the dancing starts around midnight and as we've said, can go until the wee hours of the morning.

22 of 27

Croquembouche

Profiterole tower

Rebecca Yale; Catering by Chez Amis 

The traditional French wedding dessert is a pyramid of caramel-covered profiteroles, and it's still very popular today. Interestingly, WEW also gets lots of croquembouche requests from destination wedding couples who choose France as their location. "We had a couple from Singapore who wanted a gigantic croquembouche for their cake cutting," they recalled. "That was before they realized a croquembouche is not a cake you can actually cut."

23 of 27

Gifts

Olive Oil wedding favors

Photo by Rebecca Yale

Popular guest favors for French weddings include customized candles, dragées (see below), or a sample of something local—such as a small bottle of olive oil or dried lavender, says WEW. Monnet says, "In our case, it was little lavender bags as a symbol of Provence," but she's also seen little pots of honey, local souvenirs, and cookies.

24 of 27

Dragées

Sugared almond wedding favors

moxduul / Getty Images

The dragée is a candy-coated (usually in chocolate) almond, and a very popular sweet at French weddings. "This is still alive," says WEW. "At weddings, they are gifted to guests in fives—each dragée symbolizing the health, happiness, longevity, fertility, and wealth of the couple."

25 of 27

Bouquet Toss

Bride tossing bouquet

Galina Zhigalova / Getty Images

As in America, "only single females are meant to stand in line and try to catch the bride's bouquet that's supposed to bring luck," Monnet says.

26 of 27

Sunday Brunch

Brunch at a chateux

Photo by Rebecca Yale 

French wedding festivities often include a Sunday brunch or lunch. Monnet and her husband hosted a picnic on the Sunday following their wedding, writing in the invitation the French equivalent of, "It is important for us to be surrounded by the people we cherish the most. We would be really happy if we could be together and toast!"

27 of 27

Le Voyage de Noce or La Lune de Miel

Newlyweds waving in their getaway car

Photo by Jonnie and Garrett

WEW says most of their couples leave for the honeymoon two to three days after the wedding, and usually choose sunny destinations like Mauritius or the Maldives. "Southeast Asia has also been very popular these past few years," they say.

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