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UNDERSTANDING THE FRENCH

The 8 signs that August has arrived in France

Summer holidays are popular the world over, of course, but France takes the tradition of les grandes vacances particularly seriously. Here's how you know that August has arrived.

The 8 signs that August has arrived in France
Photo: Sebastian Bozon/AFP

1. Cities are largely deserted

If you’re in a city, especially in Paris, prepare for it to feel strangely empty outside of the obvious tourist destinations. This is because all sensible French people have packed up and gone to the beach or the countryside for a month. Next year, you will know to do the same.

 
2. But beaches are packed
 
France was a nation of staycationers even before the pandemic, and in August French people flee to the countryside or the beach. Expect resorts to be packed and hotels, Airbnbs and campsites to be fully booked.
 
This year the map of Covid hotspots gives a grim reminder of where the French are, come summer.
 

 
3. Shops have cheery ‘back in September’ signs
 
Shop workers and owners take time off like everyone else and it’s very common for small independent businesses like boulangeries, pharmacies and florists to close up for a month.
 
Some will tell you when they expect to reopen, others just put up a cardboard sign saying fermé jusqu’à la rentrée – closed until September. 

 
4. Everyone you email is out of the office
 
Likewise office workers are also usually on holiday and a great many offices close altogether for three or four weeks.
 
Forget about out-of-office email replies suggesting an alternative contact or that the person will be checking their email sporadically – they will be on the beach and whatever you want can wait until they are back. This also applies to any kind of government bureaucracy.

 
 
 
 
5. Brumisateurs are everywhere
 
Obviously the summer means that it is (usually) hot, and most municipalities in France have their own hot weather plans.
 
These can involve extra water fountains, dedicated cool rooms for the elderly or the delightful brumisateurs (misters) which spray out clouds of cool water vapour for you to walk through if you are getting overheated.
 
Likewise fountains are regarded as legitimate places to cool down on a hot day.

Cool off with a water mister. Photo by GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP
 
6. No Metro lines are running
 
Many city authorities take the opportunity of a quiet month to do vital repair or improvement works on their public transport networks and this is particularly pronounced in Paris where you can expect at least half of the Metro lines to have some sort of temporary closure in August as work goes on (so yes, there is one group who work in August). 
 
7. Every road has a traffic warning
 
Bison futé, the nation’s traffic forecaster, gets good use of its red pen in August as most weekends there are red traffic warnings on dozens of roads as people head off on holiday or return from holiday.
 
The one to avoid at all costs is the weekend closest to the end of July and the beginning of August, when the juilletistes (July holidaymakers) return at the same time as the aoûtiens (August holidaymakers) set off. The final weekend of August, when people head home in time for la rentrée (the return to school and work in September) is also best avoided.
 
8. Supermarkets are full of stationery
 
Looking ahead to la rentrée, supermarkets begin stocking up their stationery aisles so that parents can buy the 29 items of stationery that are apparently necessary for every child attending a French school.
 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Who are really the rudest – the French, tourists or Parisians?

What is the price of rudeness? Between 90 centimes and €1.40, according to a sign in a café close to my home in the beautiful hills of Calvados.

OPINION: Who are really the rudest - the French, tourists or Parisians?
Bad manners can cost you. Photo: John Lichfield

A couple of days ago, I tweeted a picture of a sign in the café-brasserie-PMU-tabac in Clécy, 45 kilometres south of Caen.

The sign read:

Tarif du café.

Un café!  2€50.

Bonjour, un café! 2€.

Bonjour un café, s’il vous plaît 1€10.

(Coffee prices – A coffee €2.50, Hello, a coffee €2, Hello, a coffee please €1.10)

The tweet went viral. It has, so far, gained 400 retweets and more than 2,800 ‘likes’, including reactions from people all over the world.

The sign is not entirely original. Similar exhortations to good manners can be found in many French cafés and restaurants.

To foreign visitors French people –  and especially Parisians – have a reputation for rudeness which is not entirely undeserved but less deserved than it used to be. The French themselves have codes of everyday politeness which foreigners constantly breach.

READ ALSO The French aren’t really rude, it’s just a big misunderstanding

Scene, a French railway station. A traveller (me) has 5 minutes to catch his train. I ask a man in a red hat which platform my train is leaving from.

Bonjour, monsieur, says the SNCF customer service official. Then he says nothing until I also say bonjour. I now have 4 minutes 30 seconds to catch the train.

This has happened to me several times. I know, in theory, that all transactions between strangers in France should start with bonjour and end in merci. I always remember the merci. I often forget the bonjour.

EXPLAINED Why bonjour is the most sacred word to French people

This attachment to polite but formal codes of first contact is, I think, linked to France’s constitutional commitment to Egalité. We are all citizens. We should address one another as equals. We should not treat others as servants or minions. Fair enough.

French waiters, and other people in contact with the public, have other ways of asserting this right to be treated equally. Sometimes it can be mistaken by foreigners for rudeness. Sometimes it IS rudeness.

A couple of years ago, in an idle moment, I was sitting on a café terrace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. A group of German tourists arrived and sat down at an uncleared table.

The waiter berated them in French. They replied in English. He said, in French: “In France, we speak French”. They said, in English: “We can’t speak French.

He refused to serve them. The Germans left. One turned to the waiter and said merde. “There you are,” he said with a big smile. “I knew you could speak French.”

Investigative journalism is not dead. I decided to go back to the café in Clécy to find out more about the “cost of rudeness” sign.

Who was the sign aimed at? Locals? Foreigners? Parisians? Did the café owners enforce their “fines” for being impolite?

Remembering to say bonjour and s’il vous plaît, I ordered a coffee. I introduced myself. I showed the patronne my tweet and told her how successful it had been. She was mildly amused that her little, chalked sign had made a virtual tour of the world.

It turned out that she was the grand-daughter of a former mayor of my village eight kilometres away. Clémentine Dubois, 35, has run the bar and PMU (betting shop)in Clécy for two years.

“We put up the sign soon after we started,” she said. “There were some people who came in here who were very abrupt with me. I didn’t think that was right. Manners are important. They are the basis of everything we do together.”

Were the offenders foreign tourists? Or Parisians maybe?

“No, not at all,” Clémentine said. “They were local. Old men mostly. They are very off-hand with me – bossy. I thought the sign would be a good way of reminding them to be polite.”

Does she enforce the price-differential? “No. It’s just a joke… but, you know, I think it has worked. We get very little rudeness now.”

So there you are. The French politeness code is not universally known or respected even by the French – or not the grumpy, old, male, rural French. Several French replies to my tweet pointed out that the requirement that every conversation should begin with bonjour is actually quite new and urban.

In the French countryside, a meeting between neighbours or strangers would once, and not so long ago, have always started with a comment on the weather. Just like in Britain.

How much did I pay for my coffee in the Clécy brasserie-tabac-PMU? Nothing. Clémentine refused my €1.10.

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