Ten Popular French Proverbs and Sayings

Familiaising yourself with a few well-known French proverbs and sayings is a great way of improving your knowledge of the lanaguage, and will allow you to better fit in with native speakers.

So to help you out, I’ve made a list of ten French proverbs that you’re likely to come across in an everday conversation.

You’ll find that some of these proverbs are almost direct translations of their English equivalents, whereas others are rather different. There’s even a few that don’t have any obvious English equivalent at all!

For each proverb, I’ve given a literal translation and a brief explanation of its meaning, including any English equivalents that might exist. There’s also an example of each saying being used in context.

C’est parti !

Après la pluie, le beau temps

Literal Translation: After the rain, the fine weather

Après la pluie, le beau temps conveys the idea that after negative things happen in life, positive things often follow. There are quite a few similar sayings in English, such as “April showers bring May flowers”, or “The darkest hour is just before the dawn”.

Quand j’ai été licenciée, mon mari m’a dit : << Après la pluie, le beau temps. >>

When I was made redundant, my husband said to me: “April showers bring May flowers.”

You might also see this saying written as Après la pluie vient le beau temps (“After the rain comes the fine weather”).

Un malheur ne vient jamais seul

Literal Translation: A misfortune never comes alone

Illustration of an unhappy man

Here’s a proverb with a little less optimism. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul describes how in life, one misfortune is usually followed by another (and then another, and then another…) You may also see it written as Un malheur n’arrive jamais seul.

A good English equivalent of this saying is “When it rains, it pours”.

Cette année, j’ai été viré, ma femme m’a quitté et, pour couronner le tout, je me suis cassé le bras en faisant du ski ! Un malheur ne vient jamais seul !

This year, I was fired, my wife left me, and, to top it all off, I broke my arm skiing! When it rains, it pours!

Les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs

Illustration of a man looking at his bills

Literal Translation: The advisers are not the payers

This proverb often rings true, so it’s a bit of surprise that we don’t really have an English equivalent. Les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs expresses the idea that those giving advice aren’t the ones who will suffer the potential consequences of it. And by extension, we shouldn’t base our decisions on the advice or opinions of others.

<< Beaucoup de mes amis m’ont dit que je devrais démissionner car ma patronne est horrible. >>

<< Réfléchis bien. Si tu quittais ton emploi, ça pourrait prendre beaucoup de temps avant que tu en trouves un autre. N’oublie pas, les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs. >>

“A lot of my friends have told me that I should quit because my boss is horrible.”

“Think carefully. If you leave your job, it could be a long time before you find another. Remember, the advisers are not the payers.”

Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent

Literal Translation: When the cat isn’t there, the mice dance

Illustration of a mouse

This proverb is the French equivalent of “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”. Just like this very similar English saying, it describes how we mess around when somebody who’s usually in charge is absent.

<< Le patron est absent aujourd’hui, donc j’ai apporté quelques bières ! Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent ! >>

“The boss is away today, so I’ve brought in a few beers! When the cat’s away, the mice will play!”

Au pays des aveugles, les borgnes sont rois

Illustration of a one-eyed pirate

Literal Translation: In the country of the blind, the one-eyed people are kings

This interesting proverb describes how somebody who’s unintelligent can appear clever if they’re surrounded by people who’re even less intelligent than themselves. It can also apply to a situation in which somebody with limited skills in a certain area is at an advantage because everybody else has even less – or no – skills.

In English, the proverb “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” does exist, but you’re less likely to come across it.

<< Est-ce que tu as entendu dire que Jacques a été promu chef de service ? Il est complètement sous-qualifié et il ne sait pas diriger une équipe ! >>

<< Je suis d’accord, mais les autres candidats étaient encore pires ! Au pays des aveugles, les borgnes sont rois. >>

“Have you heard that Jacques was promoted to head of department? He’s completely underqualified and doesn’t know how to lead a team!”

“I agree, but the other candidates were even worse. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

Il vaut mieux être seul que mal accompagné

Literal Translation: It’s better to be alone than in poor company

Illustration of a woman hiking alone

The literal translation pretty much sums up the meaning of this proverb. It’s a very popular saying nowadays, and can be used in the context of both friendships and romantic relationships.

When people use it, they often drop Il, and simply say Vaut mieux être seul que mal accompagné.

If you’re using this proverb in relation to a certain person or yourself, then make sure that seul and accompagné agree with their – or your – gender.

Mon copain m’a trompée, donc je l’ai plaqué. Vaut mieux être seule que mal accompagnée.

My boyfriend cheated on me so I dumped him. Better to be alone than in poor company.

L’habit ne fait pas le moine

Illustration of a monk

Literal Translation: The habit doesn’t make the monk

The meaning of this proverb is that outward appearances can be deceiving, so we shouldn’t make judgements based on them. Its best English equivalent is probably “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, or “You can’t judge a book by its cover”.

<< Il est toujours dépenaillé et mal coiffé, mais en fait il est très riche. Comme quoi l’habit ne fait pas le moine. >>

“He’s always badly dressed and untidy, but he’s actually very rich. It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron

Illustration of a blacksmith

Literal Translation: It’s by forging that we become a blacksmith

This proverb describes how we only become a master of something, such as a trade or a language, by practicing. In English, we might say “Practice makes perfect”.

<< Je ne pourrai jamais parler anglais couramment ! >>

<< Tu as juste besoin de plus de pratique. Souviens-toi : c’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron. >>

“I’ll never be able to speak English fluently!”

“You just need more practice. Remember, practice makes perfect.”

La nuit porte conseil

Illustration of a moon, stars, and cloud

Literal Translation: The night brings advice

La nuit porte conseil expresses the idea that if we’re trying to make a difficult decision or solve a certain problem, then it’s best to go to sleep and then look at things again the next day with a clear head. In English, we might say “Let’s sleep on it”, although that doesn’t have the same proverbial tone as La nuit porte conseil.

<< Tu devrais prendre ta décision demain matin. La nuit porte conseil. >>

“You should make your decision tomorrow morning. The night brings advice.”

Ne remets pas au lendemain ce que tu peux faire le jour même

Illustration of a man looking at a checklist

Literal Translation: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today

Ne remets pas au lendemain ce que tu peux faire le jour même is fairly self-explanatory; it means that if we can do something at this moment in time then we should, rather than just put it off until another day. In other words, don’t procrastinate!

<< Quand est-ce que tu vas rédiger ta lettre de motivation ? >>

<< Je ne sais pas. Peut-être la semaine prochaine. >>

<< Tu ferais mieux de la rédiger ce week-end. Ne remets pas au lendemain ce que tu peux faire le jour même. >>

“When are you going to write your personal statement?”

“I don’t know. Maybe next week.”

“You’d be better off writing it this weekend. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

If you enjoyed this post, then check out my latest e-book, The Essential Book of French Proverbs, which introduces you to plenty more French proverbs and sayings.

It’s available from all Amazon sites, and can be read with the free Kindle app (mobile and tablet), the free Kindle for PC app (desktop), the free Kindle Cloud Reader (desktop), and all Kindle devices.