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Can I work on a laptop in a French café?

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Can I work on a laptop in a French café?
People working on laptops in cafés is an increasingly common sight in France. Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP

As cafés in Spain launch a crackdown on remote workers who hog tables for hours without buying anything, what's the etiquette over working from a café in France?

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Reader question: I'm visiting France shortly and I will need to do some work while I'm there - is it socially acceptable to go to a café and use my laptop there?

Over the border in Spain, cafés in Valencia, Barcelona and Santiago are reportedly 'on a war footing' against laptop-users, with some cutting the wifi during peak hours or just banning them altogether.

Fortunately in France, things are a little more relaxed - although this will depend on exactly where you are and how busy the café is. 

First things first - there are no local or national laws about laptop use in cafés (which you might think is a given but France does love to legislate) so the rules are up to the individual café owner and their staff. 

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Culturally, however, there is something of a tradition of working in French cafés - famous writers from Victor Hugo to Ernest Hemmingway wrote novels while loitering in cafés, philosophers from Voltaire to Jean-Paul Sartre held discussion groups in Paris cafés and poverty-stricken artists have attempted to pay for their drinks with paintings (usually unsuccessfully).

In more modern times it's completely normal for work-related meetings to be held in cafés while in cities where people tend to live in small apartments it's common for social groups such as book clubs to meet in cafés.

But how does this all relate to opening up your laptop and getting down to work?

Well is varies, but there are a few things to think about;

Location - working on a laptop is undoubtedly more common in cities than it is in smaller places and in areas like the Paris or Bordeaux businesses districts it is a common site to see people typing away, perhaps in between business meetings that they have lined up in the café. 

Café size/occupation - take a look around you, is the café busy with people waiting for tables? Is it a tiny place with only space for a few tables? In these cases you're less likely to be welcome to loiter for hours. If, however, things are quiet and there are plenty of tables it probably won't be a problem to spend a few hours catching up with work 

Time of day - while this may vary in smaller towns, most city cafés are open all day - catering for the breakfast crowd, then into morning coffee, lunch and leading into the apéro hour and dinner.

Naturally cafés get busier at lunchtime (12 noon to 2pm) and when apéro starts (usually about 6pm) so you're likely to be less welcome to take up a table for long periods during these times. If you've been there all morning and the server pointedly starts adding cutlery to your table, it's probably a sign that they want the table back for the lunch-time busy period. You could of course order lunch yourself. 

Type of café - not all cafés are created equal and there are many different types. While most places have no problem with people working there, in recent years some Paris cafés have decided to impose limits on laptop use.

One of those is the Fringe café in the trendy Marais district. Owner Jeff told The Local: "I'm not against laptops, but I am against the minority of users who will sit down for four or five hours, with the cheapest drink. That's not respectful to the space, so the decision came about because of those few who do that. We call them squatters."

However this view is far from universal. Nix Audon, a server at Café de la Poste, said: "We evolve with the times, we even offer wifi for free. People can come, relax, and do what they need to."

Before Nix worked at Café de la Poste, he was a customer. "I would come here every day after work just to relax. For me, café culture is about being able to chill, and sit for however long you want. Cafés are a huge part of social life for Parisians and café culture is intended to be inclusive of everyone, including those who want to sit and work on their laptops."

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While this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, we've noticed that most of the places that do have laptop bans are more 'coffee shops' in the American style (think loads of different coffee types with elaborate alternative milk options and big slabs of cake) than traditional French cafés (oat milk is for baby oats but the wine selection is excellent).

Do you need to order something? Yes, absolutely, it is only polite to order something if you intend to take up a table for long periods and no that thing cannot be tap water (which is free in French bars, restaurants and cafés).

How much you need to order depends on how long you want to stay - but staying all day and ordering a single espresso (roughly €2) would definitely be regarded as pushing your luck.

That said, French cafés mostly have a 'no hurry' policy and you're unlikely to be rushed out as soon as you have finished your drink unless the café is very busy and you're in a very touristy area. Lingering over a single coffee while you people-watch and/or think great thoughts is definitely part of France's traditional culture.

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Just ask - of course, you can just ask if it's OK to work there. The places that don't appreciate laptop users usually have a sign up to that effect, sometimes just covering a specific time like asking people not to use laptops at weekends or in the evening.

But if you're unsure, just ask your server 

J'aimerais travailler sur mon ordinateur pendant quelques heures, si c'est possible ? - I'd like to work on my laptop for a couple of hours, if that's OK?

Je peux utiliser un ordinateur portable ici ? - Is it OK to use a laptop here?

Alternatives - if you want to do more than a couple of hours of work, you might look for a more formal solution. France has a variety of options for people who need a work space, with the most popular being 'un co-working' - a shared workspace where you pay for your time by the hour or the day.

Many of the larger and more business-orientated hotels also offer work spaces and meeting spaces.

Meanwhile in the larger cities there is the trend of 'un co-homing' where people open up their apartments - for a fee - to people who need a space to work, plus a little social interaction.

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Stephanie 2024/05/17 20:53
Allez à la bibliothèque

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