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FOOD & DRINK

FACTCHECK: Do French waiters really tell customers what they can order?

It's a fairly regular event that someone will go viral with their story of a French waiter flatly refusing to serve a certain item, blithely ignoring any special requests or simply telling the customer that they are wrong. So is it true that French waiters tell customers what they can and cannot order?

FACTCHECK: Do French waiters really tell customers what they can order?
Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP

A recent example of this concerns a request for an oat milk latte in Paris, but over the years there have been numerous other stories of waiters refusing a request for a steak ‘well done’, plonking down a bowl of meat in front of a vegetarian or simply informing the diner that their request for coffee with their meal is wrong.

Not to mention of course, The Local’s Europe editor and his quest to get beaufort cheese for his fondue.

We’re not doubting the veracity of these stories of course, but how common actually is this? And how can you ensure that you get what you want? 

READ ALSO French café terrace etiquette

Go local 

The first thing that visitors need to remember is that France is its own country with its own (proud) culinary traditions.

Outside the big cities there’s not much on offer in the way of non-French food, so if you particularly want something from your home country you might need to accept that it’s either not available or it might not be a particularly good version of the dish.

If you want top quality food, it’s better to stick to the local offerings, prepared with care, pride and local ingredients.

This also applies to coffee – all countries in Europe have their own distinct traditions when it comes to coffee and creations like pumpkin spiced lattes are really not common outside the anglosphere.

READ ALSO How to drink your coffee in the French style

French coffee usually means a short espresso-like drink, or a milky café au lait or café crème. If you want something different you might need to look for somewhere that serves US-style coffee (there’s always Starbucks, if you insist).

Stick to the menu 

It’s common in some countries to look at the menu and then tell the waiter how you want the dish made differently, but this is not a tradition in France, where’s it’s assumed that the chef knows how s/he wants things to taste.

If something is not on the menu then that probably means it’s not available.

If you want a dish made differently you can make a polite request for this to happen, but don’t assume it’s an option – many French waiters will simply be baffled if you tell them you want the goat’s cheese salad without the goat’s cheese, and suggest that you order something else instead.

Trust the experts 

It can come over as rude or high-handed (and grumpy waiters exist, without a doubt) but consider that your server is actually trying to help you.

Working in hospitality is quite a high status job in France and many servers will have expert knowledge of which wines pair well or how a dish is best served. If they hear you ordering something that they think will not be a pleasant dining experience, they will have no hesitation in telling you, and suggesting something else.

Likewise people who work in food shops are often experts in their field, so if they tell you that a certain combination will not be good, or a certain cheese is too good for a fondue, they are probably right.    

Be polite 

One of the most frequent complaints about French waiters is that they are rude and undoubtedly rude waiters exist, particularly in the more tourist areas of Paris.

But they may be reacting to what they see as rude behaviour from you – have you greeted your waiter with a bonjour/bonsoir? It’s considered rude to fail to greet someone politely and instead just start barking out your order.

French waiters are skilled professionals and expect to be treated like equals, rather than servants.

And if they think you are rude, they won’t hesitate to be rude back – there is no concept of ‘customer is king’ in France (probably just as well when you consider what they did to their king).

On a related note – while English language skills are pretty common among serving staff in tourist areas, don’t assume that your waiter speaks English. Even if you don’t speak any French at all it’s considered polite to begin with a bonjour/bonsoir before asking Parlez vous anglais ?

Rudeness can even cost you extra in some French cafés.

Flag up dietary requirements 

There’s obviously a big difference between having specific dietary requirements and/or allergies and just being fussy.

If you have an allergy or a dietary requirement it’s best to flag this up in advance so that your waiter knows your needs and why you are making your request.

J’ai une allergie et je ne peux pas boire de lait du tout. Avez-vous du lait d’avoine ? – I have an allergy and cannot drink any milk at all. Do you have oat milk? 

Some waiters are just rude

But sometimes you can do all of this and still find a grumpy, surly or unhelpful waiter. Maybe they’re just having a really bad day. 

Member comments

  1. Why come to France to drink an oat-milk latte ? Can’t you get one at Costa’s in the high street ?

  2. You mentioned allergies in the article — I’d love to see an article on how to order gluten free in France. I have Celiac disease and am otherwise not picky, but have read about how hard it is to get gluten free food in French restaurants.
    Thanks!

  3. Customer in France: I can’t eat tomatoes, onions, garlic, carbs, dairy, or meat. What would you suggest?

    French Waiter: un taxi.

  4. ‘Bonjour’ by itself doesn’t cut it. Bonjour Monsieur, or Bonjour Madame gets you more brownie points.

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CULTURE

Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

One in four books sold in France is a 'bande-dessinée' (comic book) - as the world famous Angoulême comic book festival begins, The Local explores France's enduring love affair with this art form.

Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

Each year, thousands of people flock to Angoulême in south west France. The town, normally only home to a little over 100,000 inhabitants, almost doubles in size once a year as it transforms into the bande dessinée capital of France.

This year, from January 26th to 29th, will mark the 50th annual Festival Angoulême – as artists, authors, and comic fans from around the world gather to appreciate bandes dessinées, a hobby enjoyed by almost half of French adults and three-quarters of French children.

To mark the day, national newspaper Libération has published an edition illustrated by bande-dessinée.

France represents the world’s fourth largest comic book market – behind Japan, South Korea and the United States, and according to a 2019 report published by the French ministry of culture, bande dessinée production in France has boomed in recent years – reportedly increasing tenfold since 1996.

In 2021, one book out of four sold in France was a comic book, according to Radio France. 

“If you go to any FNAC in France, it would not be a surprise to see an adult sitting on the floor reading a bande dessinée, but I would be very surprised to see that in England”, said Dr Matthew Screech, visiting lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University who specialises in French language and French studies and author of Masters of the Ninth Art: Bandes Dessinées and Franco-Belgian Identity.

You can hear The Local team talking comic books with Dr Screech on the Talking France podcast. Download it HERE or listen on the link below.

For the French, bandes dessinées – frequently shortened to just BD (roughly pronounced ‘beh deh’) – have become an integral part of the artistic and cultural landscape, with museums and government funding dedicated to protecting the tradition.

Bandes dessinée covers everything from humorous and light-hearted reading for kids, action and adventure and more adult fare like introspective autobiographies, avante-garde stories and bande-dessinée versions of classic literature.

The history of French bande dessinée

“Many people suggest French language bandes dessinées trace their origins to Töpffer, a French-Swiss schoolmaster at the end of the 19th century,” explained Dr Laurence Grove, a professor of French and Text/Image Studies at the University of Glasgow, expert in bande dessinée, and President of the International Bande Dessinée Society.

Sitting in his office, the walls lined colourful comic books, Grove outlined the basic history of French bandes dessinées, beginning with the start of the art form in its modern format in the 19th century to its heyday in the 1930s – 1970s. 

“Then in the 1980s and ’90s, they changed format again,” said Grove. “And it was in the ’80s and the ’90s where the change of format also led to a change of style, and people began publishing bandes dessinées that were not just made for kids”.

The comics expert said that there were several important moments for bandes dessinées, starting with the Journal du Mickey – which was first published in 1934 in France. It was a collection of weekly Disney comic strips that were translated into French and equipped French references and advertisements.

The Journal de Mickey in 1935 (Photo Credit: Laurence Grove)

“People may not like to admit it, but French comics have been largely influenced by American comics,” he explained. 

The animated mouse was featured in a weekly French-language children’s newspaper, which also offered games and other interactive activities. French children could even join the “Club Mickey”.

In the decades that followed, as the pioneering bande dessinée Tintin – created by Belgian author Hergé – grew in popularity, France and the rest of Europe were thrust into war. During this time, comics were used for various partisan and propaganda purposes.

This trend continued in the post-war period, where certain comics were funded by the Communist party – like Vaillant (the precursor to ‘Pif’), and others, like the Cœurs vaillants were sponsored by right-leaning, Catholic interest groups. 

The Communist party sponsored “Vaillant” comic (L) and the Catholic interest group sponsored series “Coeurs Vaillents” (R) side by side. (Photo Credit: Laurence Grove)

“A whole generation of French kids grew up reading these without realising there was an underlying political agenda,” the professor added.

The rise of Tintin

One French-language bande dessinée sticks out as having had a particularly strong impact for generations of comic readers: Tintin (pronounced tahn-tahn in French) which has sold over 200 million copies since its inception and has been translated into over 70 languages.

Dr Screech, the author of The Ninth Art points to Tintin as the breakthrough moment for bandes dessinées.

“It appealed to children, but it also broke through to the adult market,” Dr Screech said. 

“There was a whole generation of people who started reading it as a children’s comic in the 1930s, and kept reading as it became more sophisticated as time went on. By the time you get to the 1950s, you have complex artwork and storytelling.”

For Dr Screech, a large part of the fascination with bandes dessinées in France has to do with the country’s literary culture: “I think the culture in France remains more written – a book-based culture. But in England, its music and you could see that with the Beatles. If you want a comparison, you could say Hergé was like the Beatles or Presley for the francophone world”.

Becoming a serious art-form

Bandes dessinées – like other art forms – went through several different waves: the first held on until the 1960s and featured comics like the Journal de Mickey. The second wave, according to Dr Screech, began around the 1970s and was marked by an avant-garde and modernist edge, reflecting literary movements occurring in France. 

“Until the ’80s and ’90s, it was the norm was for these comics to be published weekly with a cliffhanger ending”, Dr Grove pointed out.

Asterix, the comic book series about a village of Gaulish warriors who go on adventures across the world, was first released in 1959. “Originally it was published a page at a time and then it would be published in an album format”, Dr Grove said, noting the evolution in format from single pages to larger, full-album collections. 

This helped to bring about the real change for bandes dessinées which came in the 1980s and 90s, as more long-form, graphic novels, with adult themes came onto the market. 

Dr Grove pointed to an autobiographical comic series by Fabrice Neaud titled Journal which dove into the experience of being a gay man in a small French town, and not shying away from depictions of sexual activity, which had previously been discouraged in bande dessinée.

Government help

Part of the success and national recognition given to bandes dessinées in France can be attributed to the institutional support that the art form receives from the French government – in common with other art forms like cinema, theatre and literature. 

In 1974, the Angoulême International Comics Festival was launched. For almost half a century, the four-day festival has awarded prizes in cartooning, along with a “Grand Prize” that honours a comic creator and makes them the president of the festival for the following year.

The event is well-attended by French government officials, and in 2019, former culture minister Franck Riester gave a speech likening the comic festival to that of the Cannes Film Festival.

France’s ministry of Culture was heavily involved in the creation of the Cité Internationale de la Bande dessinée et de l’Image in Angouleme which now includes a museum, a heritage library, a specialised public library, a book shop, documentation centre and an international artists’ residence (la maison des auteurs).

“There is still this notion in the English speaking world that [comics] are a bit of a bastard form you could say – combining pictures with images – neither one form or another, that does not seem to be so much the case in France”, Dr Screech explained.

Over the past three decades, French bande dessinée readership has steadily grown.

In 2021, France instituted a “Pass Culture” – Culture Pass – to help give young people more access and funds for cultural activities. While the pass allowed teenagers to access museums and historic cinemas, over time it came to be nicknamed the “Manga Pass” as the €300 ‘culture’ stipend awarded to French teens aged 15 to 18 accounted for a six percent increase in sales of Japanese manga comics across the country.

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