France’s foreign minister and tourist chiefs think the renowned French rudeness to visitors is a problem that needs resolving but are they really unwelcoming and unfriendly to visitors? Surely it’s time to put that cliché to bed, argues The Local’s Ben McPartland
This week the French government gave the world another chance to cement the age old stereotype of the French being a nation of rude and impolite snobs who couldn’t give two hoots about the millions of tourists who come through the arrival gates each year.
It came when Foreign Minister launched a multimillion euro campaign aimed at encouraging the French, in particular those in the service industry (like those notorious Paris waiters) to be warmer to tourists.
“To put it diplomatically, we have room for improvement here,” Fabius said. “When we come up against a foreign tourist, we are all ambassadors for France.”
His announcement lead to headlines on websites in America along the lines of “France has become so rude to tourists, that the country’s foreign minister has been forced to step in.”
But are they really that impolite to visitors (alright, Paris taxi drivers aside)?
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Surveys that went with the detailed report from the “tourism promotion council” suggested France does indeed have a problem.
It may be the most visited country in the world but it doesn’t score highly in visitor satisfaction surveys.
One tourism expert asked to comment on the story on US television this week said part of the joy of coming to France was experiencing the locals’ famed rudeness.
It appears the reputation has been blown out of all proportion.
OK, we’ve all got stories of being a victim of the bad-mannered, impatient waiter or the store worker who can’t see or hear you, or of the Parisian pushing past you to get on the Metro.
One frustrated waiter came to serve me on a café terrace in Paris and told me to hurry up and order because it was cold outside. (I ordered four hot chocolates and then ran. Or that’s what I should have done.)
While no waiter or barman in the UK or the States is likely to ever say something like that, neither would the vast majority of their counterparts in France.
Language – or lack of it – has often been the root cause of rudeness, whether perceived or real.
The French, mainly the older generation, don’t have a particularly high standard of English and for various reasons – often because they are too self-conscious – they don’t feel like trying out the language of Shakespeare with tourists.
And then there’s the tourists, the vast majority of whom are pretty rubbish at French, and just presume that these days everyone speaks English.
You can’t blame the French – the older ones will remember not so long ago when their language was top dog in Europe – if they get a little upset over this assumption.
So while Fabius says improving the reception given to foreign visitors must become “a national priority”, perhaps tourists should make it their priority to learn a bit of French.
Another part of the problem is that many visitors’ negative experiences have occurred in the capital city, where, like most capitals, the locals are a bit more stressed out less likely to care about visitors.
But the whole of France seems to get tarred with the same brush.
Just as there is a geographical difference there is also a generational one, with younger French people being a different kettle of fish to their parents and grandparents.
For a start their English is better and they enjoy speaking it, even think it’s cool and are often only too keen to practice it with foreigners – even in Paris.
They are often well-travelled and well-connected and have had their eyes opened to how people treat visitors in other countries.
The tourism promotion council’s report said the French “had a difficult relationship with service.”
But different nationalities value different kinds of service.
If it‘s all about being welcoming and polite then the Americans have it nailed and the French are lagging but that doesn’t mean its quality service.
Being asked every two minutes “Would you like more water sir” or “is everything ok with your meal sir?” by a young American waiter desperate for tips, isn’t exactly good service.
French servers are much more likely to leave you alone to be asked questions by whoever you are having a meal with.
Another problem is that the French are often perceived as being rude when they are just being, well, French.
In general our Gallic cousins – especially in Paris – are less open to small talk and banter with complete strangers as Anglos are.
In France, relations always start off an a very formal basis, almost professional whereas often strangers in Anglo countries appear like they’ve known each other for years.
So while the French may appear standoffish and aloof to foreigners, well for them they are just being themselves.
And that’s fine. Isn’t it?