Kiss off: Why the coronavirus could spell the end of ‘la bise’ in France

France has lifted lockdown and things are returning towards (more) normal, but the peculiar and long-standing French tradition of greeting each other with kisses on the cheek could be gone for good.

Kiss off: Why the coronavirus could spell the end of 'la bise' in France
Will the coronavirus sound the death knell of the traditional French cheek-kiss? Photo: AFP

Whether it is President Emmanuel Macron welcoming German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a high-profile state meeting or a regular Frenchwoman greeting her friend at a bar, their gesture is fundamentally the same.

They pout their mouths, lean in, smacking their lips in a kissing sound as their cheeks touch gently together.

La bise – ‘the kiss’ – is a firmly embedded social custom, in France.

For foreigners it can seem odd to kiss as a 'hello', but to the French it is such a basic social code that has existed for so long that people tend to do it automatically, without thinking.


Still, far from all French people are a fan of the tradition.

“One of the upsides to this epidemic is the end of la bise,” a woman named Cécile wrote on Twitter.

“I hate this “custom” and (that) as soon as I step back to avoid drooling, unasked for mouths on my cheek, people got upset.”

Cécile commented on a post by Society, one of the top cultural magazines in France, which in its latest issue featured a six-page long feature titled “When la bise disappeared.”
“Do you remember before,” Society asked, “when we said hi, bye and thanks by kissing each other? Have you asked yourself why?”
Other than pointing to how the coronavirus could mean quitting la bise for good, Society asked a poignant question: do the French know why they kiss? 
Turns out, many don't.
“I have always asked myself why, but I have no idea,” said Elisa, 20, who lives in the Parisian suburb Ivry-sur-Seine.
“I think people just do do it because everyone else does it,” she told The Local.
Like Cécile, Elisa avoids la bise if she can.
“I find it quite bizarre,” she said. “It's a direct physical contact with people you don't know, which you force yourself to do just because it's a social code.”

And you think you have problems with la bise. Photo: AFP
In the Middle Ages, kissing someone was the “ultimate symbol of a social contract between a lord and his vassal,” according to a long-read on the French news website France Info titled “after the crisis, the end of la bise?”.
Tracing the roots of the cheek-kiss, the article suggests that la bise has come and gone throughout history – notably taking long breaks after pandemics like the Black Plague. 
Kissing as a greeting only made a real comeback after World War II, “a kiss on the hand in upper societies, peck on the cheek among the lower echalons,” according to l'Express.
More recently, kissing the cheek has become the norm for everyone – not just when women are involved. A couple of decades back, young French men would opt for a handshake instead of a kiss on the cheek. Today, a young man kissing another young man on the cheek is perfectly normal.

'It's extremely codified'
There is a series rules regulating la bise how many and which side to start with that can be a source of distress for many French people, never mind foreigners attempting to learn local customs.
“When you see a gal from the family at your house and you don't know whether to give her la bise or to shake her hand,” states the tweet below.

“It's extremely codified,” Anthropologist David Le Breton told France Info.
“It's always accompanied by a myriad of gestures, you can keep a slight distance or bend forward, keep your hands in your pockets or lock them around the other's shoulders,” he said.
And then there are all the cultural codes of when to bise and when it's best to leave it at a handshake. 
“Do I embrace my colleague whom I appreciate?” Le Breton asked.
“If it's a woman, she might think I'm being intrusive, and if I don't, she might think I don't like her.”
Several French women have in fact spoken publicly about their disdain for la bise, calling it sexist and pushy.
Macron was generously handing out bise to supporters before the 2019 European Parliament election. That was, of course, long before covid. Photo:AFP
A bise-ban?

For young women like Elisa and Cécile who grew up in a world full of mandatory cheek-kissing they never signed up for, the coronavirus' new policy of social distancing come with some sort of relief.



Covid-19, an extremely contagious virus, has had many shun la bise as an unhygienic habit that best be shelved for a while, maybe even for good.

In early March, Health Minister Olivier Véran told the French to try and find new, less contagious means of saying hello. 

This was back when bars and restaurants were still open across France, before mounting critical cases in hospitals forced the government to install a strict, nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the epidemic.

Back then, banning la bise became somewhat of a national joke. Pundits poked fun at politicians who claimed they would miss giving out kisses to people in their communities. French media flourished with articles asking “what now?” “Do we fist-bump instead?”

READ MORE: La bise blues – How the French are coping with the coronavirus kissing ban


Eight weeks of lockdown and a deep economic downturn later, the joke isn’t that funny anymore. But the question of whether France will have to kiss la bise goodbye is more pressing than ever.

To Célestin-Alexis Agbessi, a doctor at the emergency unit of the Parisian hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière, there is no question about it – the French will have to stop kissing.

“Absolutely,” he told The Local.

“We will need to innovate, change, create. There will be new ways to socialise,” he said.

“The world has shifted, radically shifted. I'm not sure we've realised it yet.”

What then?

Social media has flourished with comments on what to do now, if the French will manage to live in a post-bise world.

“When kids in 2040 will ask me what is faire la bise,” wrote woman as a caption to a video of a girl mouthing the lyrics to the part of La Boheme where famous French singer Charles Aznavour sings “I am talking to you about a time that those of you under 20 years old you cannot know.”


Photo: AFP

'You get used to it'

Many French are nostalgic about the thought of letting la bise go.

La bise is a cultural question here in France. It shows our affection to one another,” said Paul, 20.

Paul said he did not foresee a future without la bise.

“Once we have a vaccine, why shouldn't we? We have had the flu here since forever and that didn’t stop us from doing la bise.”

Eva, a Polish woman who has lived in France for 17 years, said she would miss doing la bise, but only with certain people.

“It's a good tradition,” she said.

“In the beginning I found it odd, but then you get used to it.”

As for Lisa, she was certain. She had never wanted to do la bise in the first place, now she definitely never had to.

“I think a sincere smile is much better than a forced bise,” she said.


Member comments

  1. It’s not going away. Just yesterday, a young woman on my bus home greeted another with kisses who had just boarded. Neither wore a mask (as required by the RATP) during their time together on the bus. A third woman with them was greeted with kisses to her masked face.

  2. The ubiquitous handshaking is more likely to spread viruses than la bise, unless everybody continues to was their hands thoroughly and many times a day. But it does seem strange, at the moment, to open the door to a visitor and not offer a handshake.

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Time’s up for France’s historic ‘speaking clock’

For nearly 90 years, anyone in France needing to know what time it is down-to-the-second could ring up the Paris Observatory and get an automated, astronomy-based response.

Time's up for France's historic 'speaking clock'

But the final countdown for the world-first service has begun.

Nostalgia fans hoping to dial 3699 and get the soothing voice of France’s “speaking clock” will have to move fast because telecoms operator Orange is pulling the plug on July 1.

“When I was a kid my mom never stopped asking me to use the speaking clock,” recalled Claire Salpetrier, an English teacher in Magnanville, west of the capital.

It all started when in 1933, the astronomer and Paris Observatory director Ernest Esclangon, got fed up with people clogging up the centre’s only phone line to ask the official time — an essential service in the days of mechanical clocks.

So he developed a concept that would later be adopted worldwide, incorporating the latest technologies as the decades went by.

Orange, the former state telecom monopoly, said the Observatory got several millions of calls in 1991, when dedicated infrastructure was set up to provide times accurate to the 10th millisecond.

“The utility was pretty strong back then, but bit by bit we started seeing an erosion,” Orange’s marketing director Catherine Breton told AFP.

“There were just a few tens of thousands of calls in 2021.”

Hearing the famous “At the fourth beep, the time will be…” in alternating men’s and women’s voices last stood at 1.50 euros a pop ($1.58), which may also have proved dissuasive in the era of smartphones.

‘Sad and nostalgic’

“I was surprised it still existed. It’s something we knew about as kids, when we didn’t yet have cell phones,” said Antonio Garcia, a health clinic director in Meulan-en-Yvelines, outside Paris.

“It was super handy when you needed to take a train or a plane — I can still remember the ‘beep, beep, beep’,” he said.

The current version is the fourth generation of the service and is calculated from Coordinated Universal Time in a temperature-controlled room by the Time-Space Reference Services lab (SYRTE) housed at the Observatory.

Much of the equipment needed to keep it up and running needs replacing, an investment that doesn’t appear to be worth the effort.

Media relations specialist Charlotte Vanpeen said she used to use it “when the power went out and you needed to reset the time on everything”.

“Hearing about its end makes me sad and nostalgic,” she said.

“Kids these days have all these technologies and don’t know about what we had. The good things are being forgotten.”

For Michel Abgrall, the research engineer in charge of keeping the speaking clock running, its demise is “a bit emotional.”

“It’s part of our cultural heritage,” he said.

But for those worried about knowing the precise time, Abgrall says don’t fret: It features prominently on the Observatory’s home page.