The present tense is called présent – or présent de l’indicatif – in French. It is used in seven different contexts:
1. The present tense of the speaker
In French, présent is used to refer to actions or states that take place in the speaker’s present tense. Examples include:
- Je mange une pomme = I eat an apple
- Tu vas à l’école = You are in school
- Il regarde la mer = He looks at the sea
- Elle peigne ses cheveux = She combs her hair
- Nous sommes à la maison = We are at home
- Vous faites un gâteau ? = Are you making a cake?
- Ils jouent le tennis = They play tennis
- Elles sont nombreux = They are many
2. Statements without time constraints
In sentences without any kind of time constraint, present tense is used:
- Un et un font deux = One and one is two
- Je n’aime pas la concurrence = I don’t like competition
- Entre amis, on ne fait pas ça = You don’t do that between friends
- Il adore le tennis = He loves tennis
This rule also applies to universal truths, general rules, etc. Here are some examples:
- L’univers est éternel = The universe is infinite
- La terre est ronde = The earth is round
- La vie est belle = Life is beautiful
- Dieu est partout = God is omnipresent
This also applies to some proverbs and quotes:
- L’amour a besoin des yeux, comme la pensée a besoin de la mémoire = Love needs eyes, just as thoughts need memory
- Les proverbes ressemblent aux papillons: on en attrape quelques-uns, les autres s’envolent… = The proverbs are like butterflies; you catch some, while others fly away…
3. Immediate actions
Immediate or immediate actions are also indicated in présent:
- J’arrive tout de suite ! = I’ll be right back
- Tu sors maintenant ? = Are you going out now?
- Il part déjà ? = Is he already leaving?
4. Regularly repeated actions
- Je mange ça tout le temps = I eat it all the time
- Il vient chaque dimanche = He comes every Sunday
- Elles passent toujours leurs vacances dans les Alpes = They always spend their holidays in the Alps
- Tu travailles tous les jours ? = Do you work every day?
5. Historical present
In narrative contexts – such as stories or texts – the present can be used to make past actions more present:
- Elle se baladait dans la forêt. Soudain un loup apparaît et la fait peur. = She went for a walk in the forest. Suddenly a wolf appears and scares her.
Sentences starting with the word si (‘if’) are constructed in the present tense:
- Si j’ai envie, je parlerai avec toi = If I feel like it, I’ll talk to you
- Si vous le préférez = If you prefer it
- Si tu viens demain, je sera la = If you come tomorrow, I will be there
7. Perfective verbs
The perfective verbs are also called action verbs and are characterized by the fact that they imply a change of state – e.g.: He opens the window (here the perfective verb describes the action that brings the window into a new state).
Examples of perfective verbs include: entrer, arriver, sortir, partier, quitter, rentrer, trouver, naître, atteindre, mourir, etc.
The present perfect verbs can be used in two contexts:
a) Near past
When a past situation can be linked to the present:
- Ma fille était malade la semaine passé. Elle sort de la maison aujourd’hui pour aller chez le médicin. = My daughter was sick last week. She is leaving home today to go to the doctor.
- J’arrive au travail maintenant et je vais appeler le client dans 1 heure = I arrive at work now and I call the customer in 1 hour
Note, however, that the present tense form of the verb venir + de + infinitive is often used (this also applies to perfective verbs):
- Je viens de parler avec elle = I have just spoken to her
- Il vient de me tromper = He just cheated on me
- Elles viennent de chercher leurs enfants = They have just picked up their children
b) Near future
When referring to something that will take place in the near future, you can use present tense:
- Attendez ici s’il vous plaît, Monsieur Hansen arrive dans un instant = Please wait here, Mr. Mr. Hansen will be with you in a moment
- Tu viens demain ? = Will you come tomorrow?
However, here you can also use the present tense form of the verb aller + infinitive:
- Qu’est-ce que tu vas faire demain ? Je vais manger avec mes amis = What are you doing tomorrow? I’m having dinner with my friends
- Est-ce que vous allez venir ce soir ? Non, nous allons dormir = Are you coming tonight? No, we’re going to sleep
- Il va te chercher cet après-midi ? Oui, il va me chercher = Is he picking you up this afternoon? Yes, he’s picking me up
NB: The two constructions for the near past (venir + de + infinitive) and near future (aller + infinitive) are very effective for beginners as they are easier to learn and remember than the many irregular conjugations of past and future verbs!
Note that the French present tense and the English present tense are very similar in usage – this is clear from the examples above!