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You don’t really need to know a lot before setting off for the beach or swimming pool in France but they do have some rules that may surprise you. It’s best to be prepared. I get the impression that French people spend a lot more time at the beach than we do. Not only do they have a lot of lovely coastline but also the weather is just that bit better. (Okay! Quite a lot better!)
Lifeguards and “baignade surveillee”
Public beaches have monitoring stations and may display flags. Many of those beaches also have a lifeguard station in the summer and this makes sea-bathing in France feel a lot safer. The flag system is three colours. Green means “safe to swim”, yellow means“not recommended but monitored” and red means “bathing forbidden”. On these beaches you may only swim between the blue flags set out by the lifeguards. Lifeguards will select an area unaffected by dangers like rip-currents, personally I trust them to know! If you try to swim just next to the lifeguarded area you will get shouted at, it’s really not allowed. On a large beach you could swim at your own risk further away and you will be left alone by the lifeguards. Outside these monitored areas you may find surf schools and water sports which have their own permissions. In some places lifeguard stations do not open until afternoon but I can’t complain because it’s such a brilliant safety service.
National laws or By-laws
Under French national law most beaches ban smoking (often flouted), alcohol, fishing and wood fires. Some town halls have banned barbeques at local beaches. If there’s nothing on the beach display board or if you’re not sure about a rule, it’s best to ask at the local tourist information office or town hall (la mairie). In theory if there’s no sign at the beach they can’t enforce a fine, but I don’t recommend that you have this argument.
We visited La Baule beach which had signposts for “no picnics” and “no cycling”, but everyone was eating and a bike zipped right by us. Then we got out a kite and the lifeguard told us kites were forbidden on La Baule for safety reasons, despite there being no signpost. The beach was nearly empty and there was no particular danger from using a kite but I do admit that La Baule would normally be packed. The lifeguard did helpfully tell us that nearby La Turballe beach did allow kites so next day we went there. Slightly irritating but never mind!
Swimwear – the beach
France has been making laws about clothes for centuries and this sort of thing comes as no surprise to the locals. However it really raises British hackles! There aren’t really very many rules, although they can be amended with local by-laws. You’re not allowed to wear clothing on a nudist beach, but there’s plenty of signage so you’re unlikely to fall foul of this rule. I suppose it wouldn’t be very fair on the naturists if people in clothes were there too. On all other beaches it is illegal to “bathe without a swimsuit or other nautical combination”. So no swimming in your clothes, and no skinny-dipping either. It’s not unusual for women to go topless, but it’s less common to see naked toddlers as you might do in the UK.
To date only a few dozen local mayors have imposed by-laws banning the burkini on beaches. Laws banning religious attire of all types exist in various places in France such as schools. France is a firmly secular republic with a very high proportion of athiests and the law-makers reflect this. The enforcing of the burkini ban has been a shocking thing to witness on the news this month (August 2016). It looks like these rules may change over time with political pressure. I’ll say no more about it but will review this post for accuracy next year.
Men are not allowed to wear baggy swimming trunks or board shorts at most swimming pools and water parks, especially on campsites. You can wear Speedos or the slightly more flattering “Daniel Craig Speedos” and longer leg shorts if they are skin-tight. Why? Well, the reason usually given is hygiene, because board shorts look like normal clothes and may be worn for other activities. They may get all dusty and then go in the pool. Also these shorts will easily balloon in waterslides, which would hurt. Some British swimming schools ban these baggy shorts because they are too loose for lessons, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.
Pool hygiene rules may also mean that you are banned from applying suncream before swimming as they don’t want an oil slick on the water. I’d suggest you apply suncream 20 minutes before going to the pool and it should all sink in. I saw plenty of people flout this rule on holiday this year; no-one wants sunburn.
Dogs are generally banned from French beaches but out of season they are sometimes permitted. Read the display board at the beach to find out. You should assume there is a ban unless told otherwise, as this is a national law. British dog owners may find this disappointing but there are many coastal paths instead. French dog owners do not pick-up as much as the British, so it’s a worthwhile ban.
Have you encountered any strange bans or permissions at pools or beaches in France?
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More about French culture – read 12 Generalisations about the French
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