Like “sacrebleu“, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi” or “omelette du fromage“, “c’est la vie” is one of the best known French expressions internationally. Many English speakers even use the expression in their daily lives.

Where does the expression come from? What does “c’est la vie” really mean? But above all, how is it used in France? That’s what we’ll see in this article. 

What does the expression “C’est la vie” mean?

The French expression “c’est la vie” emphasizes the immutable character of life, represented according to beliefs by the notion of fate or destiny. In English, the expression can be literally translated as “it is life” or “that is life”, but many other expressions manage to capture the essence of “c’est la vie” such as “it is what it is” or “that’s just the way it is”. The meaning of the expression can also be found in many other French sayings such as “advienne que pourra” or “ainsi soit-il”.

If we think about it further, we can draw a parallel between the expression “c’est la vie” and one of the main foundations of Stoicism: “not to worry about things that are out of our control”. The expression thus perfectly embodies Stoic thought and its various concepts, such as embracing what life has in store for us, whatever the implications (Amor Fati, which literally means “Aime le destin” =Love fate), but also appreciating every day what life has to offer since we only have one (Memento Mori, literally “Rappelle-toi que tu es morte” =Remember that you are mortal).

How to pronounce “c’est la vie”?

In French, “c’est la vie” is said in a much more monotonous way than when pronounced by an English speaker. The biggest difference is the “la”, which is pronounced much more succinctly in French. According to the International Phonetic Alphabet, the phonetic writing of “c’est la vie” in French is /s‿ɛ la vi/.

How is “c’est la vie” used in French popular culture?

Despite what one might think, the expression is much more widely used outside of France, especially in English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, to name a few. Indeed, even if “c’est la vie” is still used in France, the expression is less and less used, considered too old-fashioned by the majority of French people. 

When used, “c’est la vie” is generally used in a pejorative way in France. It is used primarily to signify our annoyance at a situation with negative or unexpected consequences.

Examples

➡️ “Je me suis fait renvoyer par mon employeur, mais que veux-tu, c’est la vie…”

“I got fired by my employer, but what the hell, that’s life…”

➡️ “Il pleut encore ?! Et oui… C’est la vie !”

“It’s still raining?! And yes… That’s life!”

However, “c’est la vie” can also be used in a neutral or even positive way, depending on the situation. The most common way to use the expression in this way in French is to use “c’est la vie” followed by an adverb or a determiner, most often “que” or “de”.

Examples:

➡️ “Il est parti vivre à l’autre bout du monde. C’est la vie qu’il a choisi.”

“He went to live on the other side of the world. That’s the life he chose.”

➡️ “J’aime jouer avec le feu. C’est la vie que je mène.”

“I like to play with fire. That’s the life I have.”

➡️ “Métro-boulot-dodo. C’est la vie de beaucoup de Parisiens.”

“Metro work sleep. That’s the life of many Parisians.”

➡️ “Être tout le temps en tournée et jamais chez soi, c’est la vie d’artiste.”

“Being on tour all the time and never at home is the life of an artist.”

The synonyms of “c’est la vie” in French

As we have seen above, “c’est la vie” is not widely used by the French, mainly because of the many synonyms that the expression has. Here are some of the other ways to express the feeling of the fatality of “c’est la vie”.

  • C’est comme ça: The expression “C’est comme ça” (= That’s the way it is) is often used as a synonym for “c’est la vie” in a situation where one person has authority over another. For example, it can be heard from a mother who is imposing limits on her child (“It’s time to go to bed. That’s the way it is!”) or from a supervisor at work “Il faut envoyer ce dossier ce soir. C’est comme ça” (=You have to send that file in tonight. That’s the way it is).
  • Ainsi soit-il / Ainsi est la vie / Advienne que pourra: These expressions will be used instead of “c’est la vie” when one wants to express the wish that something will come true, or the expectation and/or the neutrality towards one’s future “J’ai passé mon examen. Advienne que pourra” (=I passed my exam. Come what may).
  • Que veux-tu / Ce sont des choses qui arrivent : Here again, “que veux-tu” (=what do you want) and “ce sont des choses qui arrivent” (=these things happen) are generally used to signify the fatality of life. The two expressions can even be used in succession to emphasize the fatality of a situation “Il a raté son bus ? Que veux-tu, ce sont des choses qui arrivent” (=He missed his bus? What do you want, these things happen).

The wrong ways to write “c’est la vie”

Due to the high popularity of the expression abroad, “c’est la vie” can be found written in many ways on the web. Here is an anthology of spelling errors of the expression.

  • Se la vie
  • Ce la vie
  • Say la vie
  • Say la vee
  • Cie la vie

As you can see, all these writings are approximate transcriptions of “c’est la vie”, probably made by people who use the expression orally without speaking French, and therefore logically, without knowing the correct spelling.

Proverbs and sayings containing the expression “c’est la vie

Given the international popularity of the expression, it is not surprising to find “c’est la vie” at the center of many philosophical and artistic reflections. Here are some of the most famous quotes about the phrase, said by philosophers, writers, musicians, and thinkers throughout the ages.

  • “C’est la vie qui nous apprend et non l’école.” (=It is life that teaches us, not school) by Sénèque:  Here, the Stoic philosopher communicates to us that the experience of life provides more values and teachings than the theoretical learning transmitted by teachers.
  • “Rêver, c’est le bonheur. Attendre, c’est la vie.” (=To dream is happiness. Waiting is life) by Victor Hugo: Through this quote, the French writer highlights the unattainable character of happiness (the dream) and opposes it to the expectation, often represented by boredom, which is much closer to the reality of life.
  • “La pire maladie dans la vie, c’est la vie elle-même, puisque tout le monde en meurt un jour.” (=The worst disease in life is life itself, since everyone dies of it one day) by Albert Camus: the French writer and artist reminds us through these words of the fragility of life, and the limited time that each living being has on this Earth.
  • “Le théâtre, c’est la vie ; ses moments d’ennui en moins.” (=Theater is life, minus its moments of boredom) by Alfred Hitchcock: This quote from the British filmmaker perfectly depicts the essence of the seventh art: capturing interesting moments of life from which to create an entertaining story.
  • “C’est la vie et non la mort qui sépare l’âme du corps.” (=It is life and not death that separates the soul from the body) by Paul Valéry: In this sentence, the French poet of the 20th century opposes the philosophy of Socrates and his disciples, which postulates that “the body is a place of spiritual death of the soul”, and that the latter is released only at the moment of death.
  • “Comme disent les cains-ri, c’est la vie” (=As the Americans say, that’s life) by OrelSan: first rap album seller in France last year, the Norman artist reinforces the image that the French have of the expression through this punchline, namely, that it has been used so much by English speakers, that it is now considered more American than French.

Cultural works in which the expression “c’est la vie” can be found

In the music 

Released in 2012, the song “C’est la vie” by the French-Algerian singer Khaled is probably the biggest musical success in connection with the expression. It was so successful that the song got its Spanish version, “Vivir mi vida,” before becoming the official anthem of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil two years later. In this song, Khaled depicts a positive use of “c’est la vie” by associating it with love, joy and dance.

3 years later, in 2015, the group Collectif Métissé took the melody and chorus of Khaled’s song to make another hit. Also titled “C’est la vie”, the group adds the notions of mutual aid and courage to the positive message of love of Khaled’s global hit.

Before the release of these two French hits, the title “C’est la vie” was also used by English-speaking artists, including the 2000s girl band, B*Witched. Joyful and uplifting at first glance, the pop song actually deals with much more taboo themes as it deals with sex and desire in all its aspects.

In the cinema 

There are also a number of cinematographic works with the title “C’est la vie”. One naturally thinks of the French comedy released in 2021, nominated for the Alpe d’Huez Selection, which features such renowned actors as Josiane Balasco, Léa Drucker, and David Marsais. The film follows the adventures of a midwife and an obstetrician as they care for five families about to become parents.

In a more serious tone, we can also mention the American short film entitled “C’est la vie” which highlights the life circumstances of a homeless man as we follow his adventures in the streets, sometimes apocalyptic, of Los Angeles.

In the literature

Some French books also share the expression as a title. One thinks of the personal development book “C’est la vie” by Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in which the author shares his life lessons and his questioning of the human condition, at the dawn of the last chapter of his life.

Very popular in the personal development community, the expression is also the title of the novel by Eric Perret and Caroline Couturier which tells the story of four people trying to change their lives for the better, both from a professional and personal point of view.

We hope that you now know all about the expression “c’est la vie” and that you will know how to use it wisely during your next trip to France. Don’t hesitate to read our detailed explanations of other popular French expressions abroad, such as “Mon ami” or “Oh là là!”

Translated into English by Sacha