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.

Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. I agree with the brusqueness, and I also agree that it is not rude. Formal and right to the point. As a frequent tourist I have found the Parisians to be formal. Much like southerners in the US, they like to be introduced and to say Thank You. I also find this is is the same in Sweden. VERY formal and introductions are necessary. And yes I have noticed my fellow Americans are usually the condescending and rude ones, and will make a comment about it. When they are at fault. I speak very little french and I am very poor at what I can say. But you have to learn Bonjour and Merci. Is it so hard to be nice I keep wondering. It is harder to me to be nasty and rude. I have found many very forgiving french people of my language abilities. Many have gone out of their way to be helpful, and for that I am grateful.

  4. 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.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.