The hugely popular @frenchwords Instagram account does what you might imagine: shares French words, or phrases, with their English translations alongside. The feed is also peppered with appealing photos of Paris and France. The account is run by the enigmatic French couple Julien and Claire Azarian, who live in the suburbs of Paris with their growing family. We sat down with Julien for this exclusive Q&A to bring you the people behind the words.
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How long have you been doing French Words and what made you start it? Is it just Instagram and Facebook, or is there more to it?
I launched French Words in August 2013, a few months before I met Claire. I had just returned from a trip to Sweden where I loved meeting locals and making new friends. French people often complain about their life, politics, the weather…but outside our borders people deeply love France. Being French is a blessing and I love reminding people of that. When we are abroad and say that we are French, it usually makes people ask questions. The question, “How do you say that in French?” is what gave birth to French Words. At first, it was just an Instagram account with a simple concept: every day, post a word in French and its translation in English. Now, the concept has expanded to other social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and especially to other types of content (quotes, photos, idioms).
Is French Words both you and your wife equally? How many hours a week do you both spend on it?
Claire and I met the year I created French Words and she started to participate very quickly. She had some real strokes of genius that gave it a lot of visibility and the project really took off. For both of us, French Words remains a “side project” to our full-time jobs. We spend a lot of evenings and weekends on it.
Where do you live? Why did you choose it?
We live in the suburbs of Paris— the place Parisians often choose to when they want to expand their family and have more room to live. We bought our apartment in March 2018, a few months before our little Lily-Jane was born.
Have you always lived in France? If not, where else have you lived?
Yes, we have always lived in France. Before I met Claire, I had in the back of my mind the idea that part of my life would be lived abroad, but it never happened.
How would you describe your love of the French language and your desire to share it? Where did this begin?
I have always loved languages and learning them. I believe that this love of languages comes largely from a passionate high school English teacher. I remember him telling us about his trips to India and Thailand and I think that, in my mind, language and culture are very connected. Learning a language is learning a culture. I love my country and its language very much — to be an ambassador of it is a privilege
You and your wife both have day jobs. Have you ever thought that maybe you could monetize French Words and leave them?
It has crossed our minds, but we have never dared to do it. Maybe because neither of us has the adventurous spirit or the taste for risk that entrepreneurship implies. We have had the opportunity to create some nice partnerships and collaborations with great brands. We accept the fact that the evolution of French Words will take time and that it will follow the rhythm we give it.
What did you both study in university?
I didn’t study very long. I have a bachelor’s degree. I learned mainly marketing and a little law. Claire started with literary studies and finally got a master’s degree in digital communication.
How has French Words evolved over the years?
French Words was created in 2013, three years after Instagram was created. Our concept, perhaps very simple, was non-existent at that time. Today, we have 700K+ followers, which may sound a bit crazy for an account mainly sharing words.
What is the most gratifying thing about French Words?
The content has diversified a lot, and today, we can say that French Words promotes a certain French way of life that incites thousands of Francophiles to travel around France every year, and that makes people want to learn the language. Our community itself tells us that French Words has changed things in some of their lives. That’s incredibly gratifying.
A few years ago, on a road-trip across the U.S., I met many subscribers. I even had the chance to speak with students from two French classes at UCLA. What we get out of this “side project” is pretty incredible.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, have you seen changes with French Words? With social media in general?
We felt a huge effect during the first “confinement,” where the whole world turned to social networks, which were, for many, the only window to the world. The engagement rate on our posts increased a lot.
However, we did not open a TikTok account, despite the general trend.
We posted a few posts directly related to the pandemic and felt a lot of empathy and solidarity from our followers.
We tried not to post only Covid-related stuff though, as we were convinced that people needed to think about other, more positive things.
What has the COVID-19 pandemic been like for you and your family? How have your lives changed? Is there something positive that you can see coming out of this crisis?
Above all, we feel happy and lucky that our family is doing well and that we haven’t lost anyone close to the virus.
Like many people, we are thinking about where to go with our lives. We ask ourselves many questions about our way of life, our environment, and our jobs. We hope to leave the Paris region for the South of France in a few years, to offer our family better living conditions.
Many behaviors we observe make us pessimistic, or at least make us ask serious questions about the future, but we want to believe that with this new reality people will truly appreciate normalcy. It might also make people want to travel and learn about new cultures.
What do you see for French Words in the future?
French Words will continue to grow. We have several developing projects. It’s too early to reveal them, but we hope to be able to come back and tell you more in a few months.
What percentage of your followers are French vs Anglophones?
We have a very international audience. Only 10% of our followers are French. One out of five are based in the US.
What is your favorite Paris restaurant right now?
I would love to go back to Michelin-starred Neige d’été, Japanese chef Hideki Nishi’s beautiful restaurant in the 15th arrondissement. This is where Claire and I celebrated our first anniversary.
What is your favorite region of France and why?
La Provence! I was born and raised in Marseille, where it is sunny 300 days a year, and people have “the accent that sings.” It is a fabulous region with wonderful treasures to discover. If you come to France, you can’t not go to Paris, but try not to limit yourself to Paris.
What is your favorite French cheese?
There are so many of them! General De Gaulle is said to have said: “How do you want to govern a country where there are 246 varieties of cheese?” Some favorites are truffled Brillat-Savarin, Époisses, and 24-month Comté.
What is your favorite French wine?
I love Alsace wines like Gewurztraminer. And for sunny summer days, a great rosé from Provence, like those from Château La Coste or Château Virant.
What is your favorite French pâtisserie?
Give me a really good croissant — I don’t need fancy pastries.
What is your favorite kind of French butter?
Butter with salt crystals! It goes with everything and adds a little magic to sweet things like jam.
Who is your favorite French musician?
Kemmler, a rapper from Marseille.
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