Some beaches can look very bizarre when you arrive – people might be bunched up in a small space, leaving the rest of the beach empty. Before you run to the wide open spaces and throw down your towel, pause and think, because it probably means the crowded area is surveyed by lifeguards and that’s where you’ll want to be to stay safe. If lifeguards aren’t operating on the entire beach, it might mean there are serious currents or rip tides that you’ll want to avoid. Sometimes, it pays to follow the crowd.
The French aren’t fussed about their personal space and southern French beaches can get crowded. Both of these reasons mean that it’s totally okay to choose the spot you want/or is best, even if that means laying your towels down practically on top of other people. No one will take it personally and you might make friends.
The French like to eat lunch at fixed times, so whether that’s a picnic or heading to the local beach restaurant, they will tend to do it at the same time. That means you can either have the beach a little bit more to yourself during this time (if you picnic) or you’ll be heading to the restaurant with the crowds (so it’s ideal to book a table for an easier ride).
Lunch is a very leisurely process in summer and you will get served… eventually. Just relax about it – ask for a drink and enjoy the view, chat with your friends or read a book. Nothing can speed up service (and asking for it or being irritated by it will only lengthen the process rather than shorten it) so just suck it up and go French. If you get stressed out by the idea of fighting with the crowds, take a picnic. It will definitely help you escape French Riviera prices.
The French love a drink but never to excess and they won’t find it amusing to have to watch you play up or listen to you get steadily louder as you get drunker. Many beach bars have waiter service to your loungers (on private beaches in Nice or Cannes) but this is always discreet drinking. An apéritif before lunch and wine with lunch is de rigueur (usual). However, carrying on drinking after lunch will be seen as a little vulgar.
The stereotype is that the French are uninhibited about their bodies and it’s true, but in recent years the French are going topless on the beach much less than in the past. You can still go topless whenever you like and even nude in places (but make sure you put clothes on to eat or to drink in the bars).
Whilst the French banned smoking in restaurants and in enclosed spaces, they do still smoke anywhere – and that means anywhere. Whilst it’s technically banned in train stations and the like, you’ll still find people smoking there and although others stare a little, they won’t feel strongly enough to say anything about it. On terraces and outside areas or near beaches, people are free to smoke everywhere.
French people are not overly loud in public and will think it the height of bad manners if other people are screaming or shouting (even for joy) on the beach. They won’t think you’re cute for holding that raucous hen party on the terrace. It’s one of their pet peeves with foreigners, when they can hear English conversations because it’s too loud. Keep it down and they might join in!