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

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

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)

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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.


Member comments

  1. Almost every time I’ve seen a spat between a French waiter and a tourist, my feeling was that the tourist was at fault. Not oenly is there the “bonjour” issue, but many tourists from many countries (Americans, but not only) have this idea that the customer by definition comes from some sort of superior human caste. I like the idea that the waiter or shopkeeper doesn’t feel the need to bow down to customers. Yes, they need your money, but you need that baguette. It’s an even exchange.

  2. I have not been to Paris for a few years, however on my previous visits I only ever encountered one rude person, and that was at a bakery just across the road from the Gare du Nord. Everyone else we had reason to interact with were lovely. Here in rural Brittany it is about the same, rudeness is rare. Brusqueness is quite common but that is the nature of the person and nothing to be taken personally.

    I have however watched a lot of interactions between English speakers and French when I was still commuting between the UK/Ireland and France and found that where rudeness was given by the French person, it was often deserved given the attitude radiated by the English speaker (sometimes accompanied by outride rudeness). I witnessed the same when I travelled to Italy a lot many years ago.

    It reminded me of the tourists and emigrants that came to my home country when I was much younger…some were lovely…the ones that were arrogant and dismissive of the locals could never work out why people were so rude and unhelpful to them…you don’t actually have to say anything, your body language often gives you away.

  3. Definitely feel the Parisians aren’t as rude as they used to be. My first visit to France in 1992, was amazed at how rude they were in Paris, even with using French courtesies, however outside of Paris, found people to be very friendly. On returning in 2011, the Parisians were nowhere near as rude as they were in 1992 and found it wasn’t a fluke, as we have returned many times since. Still don’t think the Parisians are as friendly, as those outside of Paris though. My French is nonexistent outside of a few words, so if needing help, I always ask young people aged between 15-25 years old, who I have found to be a lot more engaging and willing to help, if only to practice their English.

  4. I am an American, who learned that French culture was vastly different and much more polite than I was used to. Learning Bonjour and Merci for shop keepers and waiters was the most important step to being welcomed. I married a French professional ice skater who was born in Paris during WWII. Because of a hearing impairment, I just could not learn to speak French (today, I even have to use a speech to text app on my cell phone to understand English), however,
    I loved the fact that on my last 3-week stay in Paris, I was welcomed into the neighborhood by everyone — and, if I met them on the street outside of their cafe or shop, we still exchanched Bonjour and the customary hand shake. My esperience is that the only rude French I’ve met are waiters in tourist haunts. I think it must be a hiring requirement.

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