If you’ve spent any time in France, you’ve probably noticed the window coverings that resemble what we call shutters in North America. Except these fancy shutters aren’t just decorative touches that the French add to their homes to make them look nice. They’re called volets and they serve several purposes! What the heck are these things?
French shutters are called volets
Innocently enough when he was visiting France for the first time and noticing all the closed up windows, my dad half jokingly asked if France was bracing for a hurricane, knowing full well they don’t exist here yet equally as curious for my response. And I don’t blame him! Many French window shutters look like the accordion coverings that you’d see in the off-season in South Florida when winter homes are secured and shut or when the area is bracing for a hurricane.
Some volets in France are wood and others are metal. Some open in the middle into two vertical panels that can be secured back and others go up and down. Some are modern French roller shutters and raise and lower at the touch of a button and others need to be opened by hand.
Regardless of the type, volets are part of French culture and EVERY house and apartment has them. No exceptions. (I liken this to screens on windows in the U.S. All houses have them.) The ones in the picture above really are quite pretty and well maintained, but many don’t look anything like that.
Now let me explain how volets are used. Unlike the decorative shutters that stay put on American homes, the volets actually move. Metal window shutters, wooden, whatever… French window shutters are functional.
In most cases, each morning, the volets are opened and each evening they are shut. It’s normal and lets the world know you’re ready to face the day. Everyone does it.
Some people might leave the upstairs volets open all the time (ME ME ME) but the ones at street level always do this little dance morning and night, open and close. And some even have the ability to be cracked open instead of folded out or lifted up the entire way.
So first, what do volets in France look like and why do French houses have shutters?
There are so many styles but here are a few types that are in my neighborhood:
Why do French houses have shutters on the windows?
— Insulation. To keep the heat indoors in the winter and the cool air inside in the summer. Many older homes still have single paned glass and double seems to be the norm in newer homes. When I asked about triple paned glass (normal in the US), it seemed to be a rarity here. So when the sun starts to go down, it’s time to close up your volets and conserve the heat! They serve a similar purpose in the summer since most homes do not have air conditioning. But if you have the kind that you have to actually open to the outside to open and close, you let some cold air (or hot air in the summer) in each time you do so, and bugs if that’s a problem in your area.
— Protection. Volets in France help protect the house from the elements. In a rain or wind storm, just close your volets for some added protection. Some also close the volets to block the sunlight. And a major pet peeve of mine is when the volets are half up. I understand it but either open your house up or don’t. No half-ass volets, OK?
— Security. Closing your volets at sundown lets the world know that your house is secure and ready for the night. No one can break in through the window and rob you if it’s covered by the volets and locked.
— Privacy. Want to make sure no one sees into your house? Just shut the volets.
Personally? I’m a fan of blinds. They keep the sun out of your eyes and keep nosy folks from peeking in. Guess I’m really American.
Anyway, our house wouldn’t be French if it didn’t have volets. It’s just part of French culture and EVERY house has them. We have two types: old fashioned ones that you have to open the window to open and close and one set downstairs that you can lower and raise from inside via a rod that you turn.
Although some volets are more charming than others, they remind me of a store in the mall closing for the day, when that ugly barricade comes down to say they’re closing up shop.
Not all volets are ugly, not at all, but they’re just not part of American culture and therefore I find them a little strange.
Closed volets look cold and so uninviting to me. That’s sort of the point. But I don’t like it. And about the light — I don’t want the light blocked out of my bedroom. I hate sleeping in pitch black because the natural light at sunrise can’t wake me up. And I like waking up early. But for Tom? God forbid if there’s even a crack of light in our room at night. He can’t sleep!
So volets are kind of WTF for me. I’d leave them up all the time if it were up to me. I think they’re a little weird. If you’re concerned about heat loss, get better windows. If you don’t want light coming in, get some opaque curtains. And if you are concerned about your security, get an alarm system! I’m half joking. I get their purpose. I get it’s the culture. They just remind me of that Al Pacino movie in Alaska (Insomnia) where they had to block the 24-hour light at night to sleep. But here in France, that’s not a problem since it gets dark and all. BUt in case one day the sun decides to NOT set, we have our volets! We’re ready!
In all honesty, volets are just part of embracing the culture here and aren’t a big deal. I really don’t mind opening and closing French shutters at this point. It’s almost become (gasp!) normal! And if they’ll help conserve heat and keep us safe, cool. But if I had a budget to buy new volets, I’d definitely get the most inviting-looking and automatic ones possible — not hurricane style! 😉
What do you think of French shutters?