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COVID-19 RULES

La bise is back: Foreigners in France divided over return of cheek kissing

The traditional French greeting of a kiss on the cheek has suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic, but two thirds of French people have now returned to old ways. We asked foreigners in France whether they're ready to kiss again.

Congratulations kiss: French president Emmanuel Macron embraces Kylian Mbappe during a ceremony to honour France's 2018 World Cup winners.
Congratulations kiss: French president Emmanuel Macron embraces Kylian Mbappe during a ceremony to honour France's 2018 World Cup winners. Photo: Francois Mori / POOL / AFP.

Two or four? Or three? Starting from the left or the right? Or are we supposed to shake hands? For foreigners living in France, it can be easy to forget all the questions you used to have to ask yourself when meeting up with friends or being introduced to somebody new.

In the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything – suddenly the French government was advising its citizens not to kiss people on the cheek. In a world where gestes barrières (protective measures – literally ‘barrier gestures’) were essential to saving lives, there was no place for ‘la bise‘.

READ ALSO Who to kiss in France, how many times and on which cheek

But you may have noticed lately, in the street or in restaurants, groups of friends going in for the kiss. Or maybe your in-laws are no longer taking no for an answer.

Today, 65 percent of people in France kiss their close friends, family or colleagues on the cheek, according to the results of a survey from Ifop, published on October 15th. That’s a significant increase on March 2021, when 39 percent continued doing la bise, although it’s too early to talk about a return to normal – before the first lockdown, but after the virus had begun circulating in France, 91 percent of people participated in the greeting, according to survey results from March 5th, 2020.

A quarter of French people are even more relaxed. 23 percent said they would now kiss a stranger, more than double the rate six months ago (9 percent).

President Macron embraces former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, as President of the Central Jewish Consistory of Paris Joel Mergui embraces former French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve during the inauguration of the European Center for Judaism.

President Emmanuel Macron embraces former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, as President of the Central Jewish Consistory of Paris Joel Mergui embraces former French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve during the inauguration of the European Center for Judaism. Photo: Ian LANGSDON / POOL / AFP.

‘Small intimacy’

For some foreigners in France, la bise can’t come back soon enough.

Katherine Watt, a writer from San Francisco who has lived in Paris for four years, said she was happy to see the custom return. “It can be a clue to the depth of a friendship or relationship,” she told The Local.

“And I enjoy the small intimacy. When I first came here I missed hugging which of course is not a French thing. As life gets more and more ‘normal’ here again it’s nice to return to that.”

John Salusbury Jones said: “I think it’s great. Spent two months in the Ardeche recently, 99 percent of our French friends kissed with us.”

“I’ve started again and I’m glad to see it’s back,” Laura Tassi wrote on Facebook.

“I think it’s important to keep up the tradition,” said Zoe Walsh, 24, from Ireland. Zoe said she would have been hesitant had someone leaned in for the kiss this time last year, but now the health situation has improved she’s less worried.

“I would not mind at all even if they were only an acquaintance.”

Too soon?

Although more than 85 percent of people over the age of 12 are now fully vaccinated, health authorities are cautious about the effects of cold weather and the potential for vaccines to become less effective over time. The official line is unchanged: we should still be keeping our distance.

On October 14th, Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France’s Scientific Council, told Le Monde, “We need to insist on the importance of maintaining protective measures as much as possible, at least until spring 2022.”

READ ALSO Bye bye ‘la bise’: Has Covid put an end to the French greeting kiss?

In this context, many of those embracing la bise have become more selective with whom they’re getting close to. According to Ifop’s survey, only 12 percent of people “systematically” kiss close friends and family. That figure is highest among the 25 to 34 age group (19 percent), while those on the older side remain more cautious (5 percent of over-65s).

“No more kissing everyone at a party,” said Charli Russell, 30, who is from Guernsey but now lives in Brittany. “I do a wave and a bonjour in everyone’s general direction and bise with my close friends.”

One Twitter user said: “People often wait when you meet them & if you don’t approach them or them you (to kiss on cheeks), we ‘check’ fists.”

Finally an excuse

While the custom is gradually returning to French life, there are those who can’t imagine going back to sharing their germs.

“An air kiss is I think the closest I will get again unless a very close friend – I don’t want other people’s colds, viruses,” American Kaylee Karen Linscott, 70, told The Local.

She was always careful, especially during flu season, due to an autoimmune disease, and is now hoping to avoid la bise as much as possible. “I have to say we felt a bit pressured when we lived in Brittany, but here in the Dordogne we have not felt that pressure. I think many people might feel differently after Covid.”

READ ALSO La bise: Who to kiss in France, how many times and on which cheek

For those who were never fully on board with the whole kissing thing, the pandemic has finally made avoiding it socially acceptable. Anna Perry said: “I hate it! After decades of la bise it took Covid for me to finally draw the line!”

Communications officer Sabrina Gaber added: “Culturally, I’ve never really taken to it… I was thinking something like, ‘I don’t want to kill my father-in-law with whatever school germs I’m harbouring – Covid or other’.”

American Abigail Goldman, 26, who lives in Nanterre, says she used to hate the greeting.

“I didn’t mind when the person just gave an air kiss next to the cheek,” she said. “However, there were too many occasions where I felt uncomfortable because the person (usually an old man!) physically kissed me on both cheeks. I found that extremely invasive.

“Although our family continues with la bise, I’ve found that the practice has generally lessened amongst acquaintances since Covid,” she added. “Even when Covid becomes less of a threat, I hope that the frequency of la bise will continue to decline.”

Handshakes less popular

Of course, people in France weren’t just going around kissing everybody they met before the pandemic – other common greetings have been affected, too.

The handshake, which is more common in a professional environment, has also been collateral damage. Before the first lockdown, 85 percent of people regularly shook hands with people they knew. That had fallen to 22 percent in March, but has since risen to 59 percent.

Member comments

  1. La Bise was always a mistake and even more now that we have a chronic Covid virus.

    What a shame that after getting out of the unhealthy habit people are returning to this dangerous behavior.

  2. I don’t understand the problem. Neither COVID nor any other virus is transmitted by kissing a person’s cheek. It is passed when a person inhales an infected person’s exhalation. So, unless you’re kissing someone and then immediately talking into their face it is not a problem. A handshake is a far more efficient way of transferring viruses from one person to the next. The next time you faire la bise just hold your breath until it’s finished.

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READER INSIGHTS

‘My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster’: Stories of going meat-free in France

Being vegetarian or vegan in France is not always easy and not always understood. While this can be frustrating it also leads to some pretty memorable and funny experiences a our readers attest to in their accounts here.

'My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster': Stories of going meat-free in France

Boeuf bourguignon, coq à vin, confit de canard – all classic French foods with one thing in common: meat. The French are known for taking immense pride in their cultural cuisine, much of which involves meat…but what if you are in France and you do not eat meat? We asked our readers to tell us about their most memorable experiences being vegetarian and vegan in France.

For Penny in Annecy it was hard to come up with only one “worst” experience:

“Just one? Asking for a pizza without cheese. First time it came out with cheese, I sent it back. Second time, yep still got cheese, I gave up and picked it off and ate the crust. Same restaurant, not being allowed to order a spaghetti with tomato sauce that was on the kid’s menu. Only option for adults- a green salad and fries – what I call the vegan’s delight as it is often the only thing I can order on any menu. Five years later I tried this restaurant again, the waiter happily asked the kitchen if I could have a pasta with tomato sauce – no problem. Things are better than they were!” explained Penny.

Penny’s sentiment that things are improving was echoed by over half of our respondents (66 percent) who reported that finding vegan and vegetarian options in France is, indeed, “getting better.”

A graph showing respondents’ feelings on vegan and vegetarian options in France (credit: The Local)

But does this mean that all of the advice columns and blogs dedicated to ‘surviving in France as a vegetarian’ are wrong? Well, the short answer is no. Almost a quarter of readers still feel like it’s not worth even bothering eating out because French restaurants do not offer “good vegan or vegetarian food,” for a number of reasons.

Flexible interpretations of vegetarianism

Many readers had one negative experience in common: restaurants and cafes failing to understand what falls under the umbrella of vegetarian, and more importantly, what does not. Several of our readers recounted their experiences finding some surprise bacon bits (lardons) in their supposedly meat-free salads: “After explaining to a waiter that I was vegetarian and being offered and accepting the proposed salad I was not happy to find it covered in lardons. When I queried this I was told that they were a garnish!” said Chris Welch, who lives in Strasbourg. 

Meanwhile, for others there were a lot of misconceptions about seafood. “Many french restaurants still think vegetarians eat fish!” explained Penny, who lives in Annecy, France. Another reader remembered ordering a vegetarian salad and then finding prawns scattered over it.

One couple had a pretty serious seafood-being-vegetarian miscommunication when they arrived in Bretagne:

“My wife and I arrived late at a town in Côtes d’Armor and found a crêperie open. We asked the proprietor if she could make a vegetarian crêpe, and she replied with an enthusiastic “Bien sûr !” The crêpes that came out almost 30 minutes later were a work of art: piled high with a colourful assortment of crab, lobster, and oysters. We couldn’t pretend they were OK; she stood and waited to watch us enjoy her masterpieces. We told her as nicely as possible that we couldn’t eat them, and she instructed us at length on the difference in meaning between the words “végétarien” and “végétalien.”

To make up for her disappointment, we bought about 50€ worth of her jams sauces, on display by the register,” said Daniel New. 

The proprietor’s comment might be a tad confusing, as the primary difference between “végétarien” and “végétalien” is that the former translates to vegetarian in English, and the latter is the formal French way of saying ‘vegan,’ though most French people just stick with végan these days. So either way, the couple probably should not have discovered seafood in their crêpes.

After this experience, Daniel New’s advice is always to “check your food before you dig in, to be sure the chef doesn’t regard poulet as a vegetable.”

Geography

A lot of our readers explained that geography plays a big role in whether or not you will be able to find good vegan and vegetarian food. Not surprisingly, small towns are trickier than big cities. When asked whether eating out in France as a vegetarian or vegan, most people replied “only in big cities.” One couple that lives in Bayonne explained that they have had to adapt: they cook vegan at home and eat vegetarian when they are out, in order to have more options:

“The Saturday market is a vegan paradise,” they explained. “To have a social life and meals out with French friends you must still eat butter and cheese. American vegans will be annoyed by this but we also believe in eating sustainably which means eating local ingredients. Lots of ingredients used in vegan cooking aren’t easily found in small French towns (eh hem, avocados).” 

One reader, Shane Routledge, said that he has found it harder in the South than in other parts of the country, which could be due to the region being more rural generally. His tips for veggies or vegans in France? “Just hope there are places where you are that have entered the 21st century.”

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