Having been based in France for almost 20 years, and being an avid coffee drinker, I hope I can bring a bit of clarity to this confusing subject.
In France there is not the culture of fresh milk like in the UK and Italy for example. Fresh milk is always on a tiny shelf in the supermarket and most small shops don’t stock it at all. A UTH equivalent is sold in great quantities across the country and by English standards of fresh milk is pretty disgusting. So this is where drinking coffee in France can go terribly wrong.
If a short black coffee is what you are after you are in luck. Just ask for a café and to the left is what you will get. This is usually delicious and will give you the caffeine rush one expects. It is the same as an expresso but many French bar owners have not been to Italy and therefore don’t necessarily understand when you ask for an expresso. So its a Café, as simple as that. Or of course a double café for a serious kick of caffeine.
However if you prefer a milky coffee there a various choices. First if you ask for a cappuccino you are likely to get something that looks like this. It will have powered milk in it and then topped with fake cream that has come out of a spray can. For me, being such a milk lover, I find this disgusting. It does not resemble the original Italian cappuchino at all and is best avoided. It is sweet and sickly and entirely void of fresh milk or cream.
Or you can ask for a Café au Lait or un Grande Crème (basically the same thing). Now again 90% of the time in France this is made with powered milk. There will be no foam on the top and it is sweet without adding sugar. Such a shame, as again, it invariably is quite revolting and leaves a nasty furry sensation on your tongue. As with all coffee drinking in France it is totally acceptable to dunk your croissant or toast into the coffee, an acquired sensation and is practiced everywhere.
My favourite coffee is called La Noisette. This is a café with a very small amount of hot milk added which, for me, takes away the bitter taste of a café. Due to the small quantity of milk it is usually fresh. La Noisette is the same as the Macchiato you would find in Italy. I find this perfect after lunch to give a boost to the afternoon.
It is one of my great regrets that, despite all the wonderful street Cafés, France cannot produce a better milky coffee. I would go as far to say they make the worst milky coffee in Europe all down to the fact that fresh milk is just not part of their culture. I am 4 hours from the Italian boarder and I cannot tell you the pleasure I get when I stop at the first service station on the Italian side to divulge in what the Italians do best – the great Cappuccino.