The Gallic greeting custom of planting an air kiss on each cheek known as “la bise” is as synonymous with France as croissants and cheese and has been around since the time of the Romans.
But while many French may see it as a treasured custom, not everyone in France is a fan. Some are even refusing to partake. At least in the work place.
Aude Picard-Wolff, the mayor of Morette, a small village in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France, is leading the charge after deciding she will no longer faire la bise with her fellow councillors.
Picard-Wolff says “la bise” not only wastes time, given how long it takes for her to plant kisses on the cheeks of the 73 village councillors, but also because she says it is “unhygienic”, even “hypocritical” and “shows an inequality between men and women”.
She said the ritual of cheek kissing annoyed her and no longer means anything in modern day France.
“I simply couldn't do it anymore,” she said, which might strike a chord with anyone who works in big offices in France.
The mayor put her views into action, telling her 73 colleagues in an email that rather than giving the traditional “bise”, she would instead be giving them a firm handshake.
“It was nothing but a simple request on my part to not give the “bise” to my colleagues. All my colleagues accepted my decision,” she told The Local.
She even confessed to showing up to meetings late so that she could avoid having to give the “bise” to the councillors. She also said she was happy to have fallen ill with a cold which meant she had a ready made excuse not to kiss anyone.
Her move made headlines across the country and has rekindled an old debate that in her words has “snowballed”.
Now Picard-Wolff is at the centre of a row, albeit one which she is happy to have provoked, that challenges one of the country's best known traditions.
- French kissing: Where does the custom of 'la bise' come from?
- Should foreigners in France 'faire la bise' to each other?
Her problem with the greeting kiss does not just centre around the time it takes to carry out the custom.
“Even if it is a minor issue it's an important for our everyday lives and it certainly is to do with equality between men and women,” Picard-Wolff told The Local.
“The onus is often on women to do 'la bise' while men can get away with shaking hands.”
On top of that she says it also risks transmitting viruses and flu with cheeks rubbing together with each kiss.
“That becomes unbearable,” she said.
The mayor even went as far as to suggest that using the gesture in the workplace was often a “hypocritical” one.
“I'm glad I made the choice to shake hands to greet people by looking at them, possibly smiling, rather than making this systematic, sometimes hypocritical, gesture,” she told The Local.
One solution put forward by the mayor would be for people to wear a badge indicating whether they are willing to give “la bise” or not. Could it take on?
The mayor isn't the first woman to highlight the issue.
In August, French blogger Romy Têtue wrote a post entitled, “Mille milliards de mille bises” explaining her own decision to tell her colleagues she would no longer give the “bise”.
“In reality I hate the practice of kissing at work. It complicates everyone's lives (when we go for drinks, OK, and if we're friends — note that I love hugs — but not at work).
Têtue writes that she would rather “give a high five or just the good old handshake that puts everyone on an equal footing”.
Another person who is no fan of la bise is Paris based British comedian Paul Taylor whose video ripping apart the custom went viral.
Is the practice sexist?
The row comes after France, like other countries around the world, has been forced to examine its attitude towards women in light of the wave of accusations of harassment, assault and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The mayor says she has received many emails and letters in support of her stance from other women who claim that she has had the courage to speak her mind on an issue that others agree with her about but choose to keep quiet.
Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, spokesperson for French women's rights group Osez le Feminisme believes that the tradition is sexist but believes the answer lies in teaching French children that la bise is not compulsory.
“We are really talking about the importance of non-sexist and positive education — teaching children when they are very young that they are not obliged to do these greeting kisses,” Rémy-Leleu told The Local.
“Too often women do not dare to shake hands and more often than not they are mocked when they wish to do so,” she added.
And how unhygienic is it really?
There is also the questions of hygiene raised by “la bise” with the act unsurprisingly considered likely to lead to the spread of viruses.
“Giving greeting kisses does not transmit the same types of diseases as a handshake,” Professor Elisabeth Bouvet, infection expert at Bichat Hospital in Paris told France Info.
“The mouth is not far from the mucous membranes ( of the nose and mouth), so some infectious agents are more easily transmitted, but to my knowledge, no study has been done. What is certain is that the less you approach someone, the less viral particles you'll pass on,” she said.
For now, Picard-Wolff is standing by her position.
“I will keep my kisses for my loved ones, family and real friends!”
“I hope that my action will contribute to making people think so that everyone can feel free to give or not give la bise as an elected official, in another profession or in any other situation,” she told The Local.