Planning a Wedding in France
When Arnaud and I decided to keep each other, it didn’t take long for us to decide to get married in France.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any specific visions for my wedding. If I’d grown up with a detailed idea of must-haves at my someday-maybe wedding, trying to recreate them from afar in a different culture would have proved very difficult. Not impossible, yet likely far more challenging than I would have wanted to undertake. Planning a wedding in a different country without specific notions has enough challenges.
If getting married in France appeals to you, let me share a few of my experiences to shorten your learning curve. (Because yeah. Organizing big events involves enough stress already.)
Don’t Count on a Legal Marriage in France
Despite what you may believe from seeing plenty of Paris elopements, people who don’t have French residency cannot get legally married in France.
Further, in France—as in most European countries, which have a more genuine separation of church and state than the United States does—a church or nongovernmental officiant cannot legally marry you. Therefore, French people do both: A family-only governmental paperwork-signing one day and the more elaborate church ceremony with a larger guest list on another day. I say “church ceremony” because a nongovernmental ceremony that doesn’t take place in a church doesn’t happen too often in Europe. (We had a secular ceremony, which gave Arnaud some explaining to do with his traditionally Catholic crew.)
Arnaud and I did manage to get legally married in France, though we doubted we could make it happen (and Arnaud has French citizenship). For the full civil-marriage lowdown, read my article about our French civil ceremony.
Typically, people who don’t meet the French resident criteria do their legal marriage via a civil servant in their home countries and then have a ceremonial shindig in France.
Find a Wedding Planner in France
We planned a wedding in France not because berets and baguettes and macarons make us swoon, or because we adore when Humphrey Bogart tells Lauren Bacall in “Casablanca” that they’ll “always have Paris” when he kisses her goodbye, or because we had our first kiss in front of the Eiffel Tower and then placed a lock on the Pont des Arts. We got married in France because France is the groom’s home country. (And when the bride’s home country is Houston, Texas, and you decide to choose one of the two, well….).
However, we didn’t live in France, so we needed someone local on the ground to help us coordinate. You’ll need a wedding planner, too—especially if neither you nor your partner speaks French. (Having Arnaud and his family to read through all the French documents and contracts—and not relying solely on Google Translate for this service—gave me a lot of peace of mind. If you don’t have French family, you need a wedding planner.) Planning the wedding you want in France without someone who speaks French and can work with French venders will prove almost impossible.
Wedding planners, which have become almost a given for every wedding in the United States, haven’t established the same ubiquity in France. In France, mothers and other family members do the heavy lifting for wedding organization and resource heavily the venders and networks in their local communities.
Therefore, the wedding planners you will find in France—especially if they have English-language websites—mainly cater to foreigners who want to get married in France. Given that their clientele typically choose to get married in France because of the country’s association with romance and love, the wedding planners you’ll find will want to make stereotypical France-ness a key part of your wedding.
All the portfolios we saw and all the options we received featured gaudy faux chateaux settings a la the Hollywood take on Marie Antoinette, accordion music galore, lots of photos of couples kissing on the Pont Neuf above the Seine, and wedding video portfolio reels that we turned into a game of “how long will it take for the Eiffel Tower to appear?” Groan.
The experience gave Arnaud a good insight into American stereotypes of France and the French. As we reviewed, I heard a lot of “Good God!”
Also, all the wedding planners we interviewed wanted to build a schedule of events that suited American expectations. We wanted a French wedding—not an American wedding. (Americans have attended plenty of American weddings. We figured we’d give the French what they expected and the Americans a cultural experience.) We needed to continually nudge the wedding planners away from the French stereotypes and the American set-up toward a more traditional French wedding plan.
Toward this end, we interviewed wedding planner candidates to find one who understood us and had a willingness to shift from the preset “French destination wedding” agenda. As all great wedding guidebooks will tell you, you should take the time to interview your wedding planner candidates to find one who fits your style and whose process suits your needs. Don’t cut any corners on this count if you want to get married in France; your wedding planner has more importance than ever when she’s managing all the details and doing all the viewings and tastings without you at her side. You need a high trust in her abilities from the outset.
Of course, having trust at the beginning didn’t mean I had no anxiety leading up to the event. The wedding planner we found turned out an amazing event. Yet all the way up until each moment of each event of the wedding (from the welcome dinner, to the wedding, through to the brunch the next morning), I had no idea what truly to expect. As a true Type A personality who runs a company, this unnerved me. Yet I needed to relax and have more faith. She pulled it all off beautifully.
Know the Differences between French and American Weddings
If you want to get married in France, you must decide whether you want an American wedding in France or a French wedding in France. From what we could tell based on wedding planner and wedding vender portfolios, most people want the former.
This makes sense if both members of the couple are American and most of the planned guests are American. Also, it makes sense if you’ve always imagined your wedding including most of the components of a traditional American wedding. In these cases, do an American wedding in France. (Or just get married in the United States, which I promise will prove a lot more straightforward.)
If you think maybe you want a French wedding, even though everyone attending—including the bride and groom—will journey from the United States, you should consider a few of the key differences between French and American ceremonies and receptions and then decide what best suits your wedding vision.
My experience exposed the following main differences between typical French weddings and typical American weddings:
The French don’t have attendants for the brides and grooms. Yep, that means no bridesmaids, groomsmen, maids of honor, or best men. In fact, Arnaud’s aunt asked me, when we saw her during a wedding-planning trip, if I planned to do that funny American thing where I made a group of women all wear the same dress. We didn’t plan to have attendants, so I contentedly said no.
The French don’t do the tiered wedding sponge cake, favoring instead a pile of cream-filled pastry puffs held together with spun sugar called a croquembouche. Though not as pretty as the American confection, the croquembouche tastes worlds better. We had a croquembouche and a small American-style wedding cake, and the croquembouche put the American cake to shame.
The French don’t do a rehearsal dinner. In fact, I don’t even think the French even have a rehearsal the day before the ceremony. We did a welcome dinner the night before the wedding for the American guests, given how far they’d traveled, and we went ahead and invited most of the French to it. (We had a small wedding, which made this feasible.) The French didn’t understand why we had a party before the party, but they enjoyed it.
The French don’t have standard wedding toasts. We asked a couple of people to speak, they happily did so, and everyone thought it was nice (especially as we had translators). Yet no one on the French side would have had any expectation to stand up and say anything if we hadn’t asked them in advance to say a few words.
The French care deeply about the food at a wedding. In France, wedding food tastes fantastic—and they put a lot of thought and time into it. Serving cheap slop at a wedding, as we commonly do in the United States, would not go over well with the French. (We figure people come for the party, they figure people come for the food.) At a French wedding, you won’t find dry mystery chicken stuffed with tasteless mystery stuff under greasy mystery sauce.
The French have traditions around the specific courses served at a wedding (and all wedding banquets have multiple courses). For example, foie gras comes as an expected standard course, as does smoked salmon and other exotic shellfish. The French expect beef and other expensive cuts of meat at a wedding as well. Other than the beef, most Americans don’t like these foods, much less eat them. Therefore, if you have a predominantly American guest list—especially made up of unadventurous eaters—you may want to push the caterers as close to an American menu as possible. (Be prepared when they push back. They have high culinary standards, the French.)
Network to Gain French Local Insights
If you plan to wed in Paris or the south of France—both fabulous locales—most wedding planners will have you covered. After all, these are the places in France where most foreigners want to get married, so they’ll have done several weddings in each area and will know great local places, caterers, musicians, photographers, videographers, and all the rest. Parfait.
However, if you want something a little more off the beaten path, French people living in France can provide valuable help. We wanted to get married in Normandy, France. Arnaud grew up around Paris, but his mother, father, and their families come from and, in many cases, still live in Normandy.
Our wedding planner hadn’t previously organized a wedding in Normandy. (Neither had the other planners with whom we spoke prior to making our selection.) Normandy just isn’t a hot spot for destination weddings for foreigners, so why should wedding planners catering to foreigners build up networks and resources there, right? Fair enough.
Though our wedding planner was trouper about looking high and low and sourcing solid possibilities, we found our ceremony venue (an incredible labor-of-love garden) and our welcome-dinner restaurant (which served an amazing meal in a gorgeous tiny Norman town) through Arnaud’s aunt. She lives in the region of Normandy we liked best—an area close to where Arnaud’s father is buried, which gave it significance for us—had planned the weddings of her four children in the area, and had attended plenty of weddings in the neighborhood. Tante Babeth had the inside scoop.
If you don’t have French family and friends, see if you know anyone who can make connections for you.
Plan a Wedding Reconnaissance Trip
Few of the French websites we encountered stood up to American website standards. Most venues and venders won’t have elaborate, detailed, luxurious brochures to entice brides and grooms. No company or location we encountered had a dedicated staff member for weddings or events.
Therefore, you won’t get much wedding-planning information from the web, you won’t get much information when you call, and you won’t have a lot of photos or any video to give you a feel for what to expect if you select this or that option over another. In many cases, the websites and information we received did a disservice to the venues and venders. Our wedding planner and family members would send over a recommendation, we’d look it up online, and we’d think, “Yuck. Really?”
For these reasons, your budget should include a reconnaissance visit to view as many of the options for yourself as you can. As you can’t plan much without a venue, you should at least try to get over to see the venue options in person before your wedding planner starts creating a wedding around your selection. Venues we thought ugly on the Internet were anything but ugly in person—and vice versa.
Would I Get Married in France Again?
If I did the wedding all over again, I’d do it again in France. Of course, I have a French husband and a French family, so getting married in France had deeper meaning for us than just the beauty of the country. Yet what a wedding. What a wonderful, beautiful experience.
France is a gorgeous, amazing country. If you’ve only seen Paris, you haven’t seen a fraction of France’s loveliness. So even if you have no actual connection to France, if you think you might want to wed there, I recommend it highly.
Go for it.