Learning French at Monoprix

When French is not your first language, every visit to a French supermarket is like walking into a three-dimensional visual dictionary. Even though we have bilingual labelling here in Canada, we still learn new vocabulary each time we go shopping for groceries. After all, we seldom see things like quince jam (confiture de coings) or sea bream (la daurade) at home.

On our last visit, we made the usual trip to the nearest Monoprix to stock up on basics, from breakfast granola (the nearest thing we could find was organic muesli) to Kleenex (mouchoirs en papiers). As we were unpacking, I saw something unusual on the Kleenex box, shown below.

Pour prestidigitateur debutant.” (For beginner magician.) What was that all about? After thinking about it for a while, I assumed that it was a little joke on the fact that pulling out a Kleenex is a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Ta-da!

The box was one of Monoprix’s house brand products, and on my next visit, I looked for other products, to see if they, too, had quirky little observations on the packaging. They did.

The carton with eight different yogurt flavours in it said, “Vous allez passer plus de temps à le choisir qu’à le manger.” (You’ll spend more time choosing one than eating it.) That was pretty straightforward. But some of the taglines had a Zen-like weirdness.

On a can of flageolet beans: “Il ne faut pas écouter tout ce qu’on dit.” (You shouldn’t listen to everything people say.) Hm. Does it have anything to do with the fact that a flageolet is a type of musical instrument? No idea.

The Brussels sprouts were easier. “Ne comptez pas sur nous pour faire un blague belge.” (Don’t expect us to make a Belgian joke.) The French are always making jokes about the Belgians, the way Canadians make jokes about Newfoundlanders. The only mystery to me was: who the heck eats canned Brussels sprouts?

Some of the lines were a bit lame. On a can of sweet corn: “Si les poules avaient des dents, elles adoreraient!” (If chickens had teeth, they would love this.) Maybe I am missing something.

But I liked the one on the baby carrots: “Le jeunisme atteint même les carottes.” (The obsession with youth has now even reached carrots.)

I got the pun about the sausages with lentils: “Vous imaginez une sauce avec des lunettes?” (You were thinking of a sauce with eyeglasses?) “Lentilles” is the word for contact lenses.

I was stumped by the one on the sundried tomatoes, however: “Elles vont vous sécher.” (They will dry you? Ah, no. “Sécher” can mean to leave one without an answer, in other words, to stump someone. No kidding.)

I also learned a new expression in the mustard aisle: “Prenez-en de la graine.” Apparently “prendre de la graine” means to take inspiration from something. Sure, I can be inspired by mustard.

There are even cultural references. One type of butter is marked, “Goûté et approuvé par le Petit Chaperon Rouge.” (Tasted and approved by Little Red Riding Hood.) Apparently in the French story, LRRH is carrying butter to her granny, among other things in the basket.

Who comes up with these things? And how many approvals do they have to seek before the powers that be sign off on a sauce for crudités (raw vegetables): “Pour que crudités ne rime pas avec nudité” (so that crudités don’t rhyme with nudity)?

Was the creative team falling on the floor at their own puns and rhymes, or going about it seriously? “OK, folks, we need to come up with new taglines for detergent, rye bread, and apricot juice by noon. Sharpen your pencils.”

I must say that I like the design of the packages, with their bright blocks of colour and bold lettering. There are no images, just typography, which presents a challenge for foreigners, but they are easy to spot on the shelf, and can be read from some distance away or by people with poor eyesight. (I’ve always said that France treats older people better than Anglophone cultures do.)

According to the Monoprix website, this new visual identity program (what the French quaintly call in fake Franglais, “le relooking”), was rolled out in late 2010. No fewer than 2,000 products received the treatment. Collect the whole set.

On another website devoted to advertising I learned that the program was created by a firm called Havas City and was intended to cheer people up after a rather gloomy period of recession. The overall theme was “Non au quotidien quotidien.” The agency translates that as, “Daily life should never be routine.” On the whole, the campaign succeeded and sales improved.

Apparently, however, one catchphrase backfired (I guess with 2,000 products, there are bound to be some missteps). The creative team chose this line for a package of verveine (verbena) herbal tea: “L’infusion qui vous fait oublier qu’on ne vous a pas augmenté cette année.” (The herbal tea that will make you forget you haven’t had a raise this year.) When Monoprix employees spotted this, they had a collective fit, since they hadn’t had a raise that year. Damage control. The packages now say: “On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne.” (You don’t change a winning team.) What is the French for “feel-good catchphrase”?

The tagline for the company as a whole is “On fait quoi pour vous aujourd’hui?” (What can we do for you today?) I guess for us Anglophones, you can make shopping just that more productive as we polish our French skills while standing in line at the checkout counter.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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13 Responses to Learning French at Monoprix

  1. Beverly says:

    So very clever! Now I have a much better appreciation for my favorite store. Wait until I share this with my french teacher!

  2. Alison says:

    Where the French succeed in this is their ability to use Franglais in their advertising, e.g., the Ice Crime advert. We Engish don’t add French words to ours………….. or do we? Perhaps for cosmetics but not for food. Maybe one of your dear readers will correct me. But I love all this literal and figurative translation of products. And I truly enjoyed this blog, as, of course, I enjoy and look forward to them all. OK so it’s not always Fridays now, but Sunday is a better day for most of us to take a moment to absorb. Thank you both. xx

  3. Sab says:

    Hi, a very interesting post – nice to be reminded of what’s around us and appreciated differently through other eyes. A few of those seemingly totally obscure ones are probably cleverer than they appear – it’s just the cultural reference we’re lacking – that’s my excuse anyway! ~ Sab

  4. Pingback: The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » Monoprix Gets Clever

  5. KAREN GRAHAM says:

    I’m going to Paris next month. I will definitely check this out. Hope to improve my French somehow.

  6. sctroyenne says:

    I really like the look too. They don’t look like sad old generics.

  7. Gwenn says:

    Thanks for this funny post.
    Just a comment on the beans; in France, we say that they cause flatulence, hence the expression “Il ne faut pas écouter tout ce qu’on dit”… 😉

  8. Kiki says:

    What a fun-filled, informative and interesting post this is. Found you via some sidetracks (starting off with Adam’s Website ‘Invisible Paris’, but quickly losing the motorway…)!
    I have an amusing detail with my personal language-battle: I asked some French friends to pass me some ’tissues’…. nobody reacted in the least – but eyebrows twitched up. When I explained that I needed a paper hankie from the box, they said in unison: Mais ce sont des Kleenex….
    I grew up in Switzerland and with Swiss German and German, lived for 18 months in Toronto, later in life for over 8 yrs in UK and now for more than 3 yrs in France; my Hero Husband is French spoken Swiss – and I still walk happily in the traps of ‘faux amis’, free Franglais translations ‘selon Kiki’, I still mix times and grammar bits but hey, it’s fun and I love the ‘bon mots’ on Monoprix articles. Thank you

    • When were you in Toronto and what were you doing? And what are you up to now? We would like to know more.

      A year and a half in Toronto probably tells you something about why we love Paris.

      Thanks for your comment and your enthusiasm.

  9. Kiki says:

    Sorry guys, I never saw your reply – and here (better late than never?!) my latest
    I lived in Toronto ‘in an earlier life’, one I try (not really) to forget and so much time back that you’d think I must be over 100…. It was at the time when (I think….) the Toronto Dominion Centre was the straight out of the top drawer of modern life and of course, me being young and still pretty vulnerable, not my best loved edifice after I left the building for my lunch hour to find an elderly man collapsing dead in front of the revolving doors because of the temperature difference inside (freeeeeeeezing thanks to AC) and outside!

    Anyway, I personally wouldn’t say that Paris is my dream city either – I don’t like the coldness, stress-factor, unfriendliness (occasional), the couldn’t-care-less attitude of most Parisians – but since I live in the area (Ile de France) I also take good care of visiting Paris as much as I can (must) and there is MUCH to be LOVED, I admit!
    MY paradise is and always will be the shores of Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva as the Americans [wrongly] call it)…. If you want to learn a bit about that region, visit my TripAdvisor page ‘Kiki-Vol-au-Vent’! Title: Lac Leman, the shores of my paradise… I could cry just thinking about the beauty of it!

    • Hi Kiki, Thank you very much for your comments and your enthusiasm. Toronto has changed quite a lot since the TD Centre was new. Some things are better. We live in the east end of the city, in an area that feels rather like a small town within the larger city. Our house is a short walk from Lake Ontario, and we love the lake as you love your Lake Leman. Right now, everything is looking lovely as the trees have all turned brilliant colours, and it is sunny if rather cold. We have a little garden and we spent this morning getting it ready for the winter — raking up the leaves and cutting back some overgrown foliage. We do most of our work in home offices, and things are pretty quiet. Every so often we crave the buzz and excitement of Paris, with its crowds and bustle. But we also like to return to our little house by the lake and find out more about the things we see when we travel.

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