Last week the BBC published an article about a recent poll of “6,000 world travelers” who rated the French as the rudest people in the world. Articles on this theme appear periodically, perfect examples of non-news filler that so-called newspapers employ to enhance their entertainment value by appealing to popular stereotypes.
I’ve been arguing in vain against the notion of French rudeness for decades and developed a repetoire of stories about being treated with wonderful warmth and generousity by French people I hardly knew. For example, on arriving in Paris in 1981 with my ex-wife Sandra and our 2 year old daughter Sara, we were met at the train station by Marie-Helene, a friend of a friend who had spent a few days at our house in Austin while travelling in the US. The first night she gave us her apartment and stayed with her parents. She left us her car to use to drive to Versailles the next day. Then she moved us to an absent friend’s spacious and well-equipped apartment in Montmartre for a week – free. She escorted us on a visit to the chateau of Chantilly and afterwards to her parent’s house for a fabulous six course dinner with apéritifs, different wines with each course and champagne with dessert. All the while, Sara pranced around the house with diarrhea and a leaky diaper. On our departure, they presented us with a beautiful lace-trimed velvet dress for Sara, a bottle of fine Burgandy (Gervey Chambertin) and a bottle of Moet Chandon champagne. We stood dumbstruck trying to think of new ways to say merci and wondering what we had done to deserve such treatment.
Regardless of several such incidents, I’ve decided to acquiesce to the widespread conviction that the French are rude. To continue to assert the contrary just because they aren’t rude to me is to argue illogically from the particular to the general. I must conclude that this just doesn’t happen to me because I speak a little French, wear long scarves and ooze francophilia.
The best way to experience French rudeness is to expect them to automatically speak English while in France. Try to imagine what would happen to a haughty Frenchman who arrived in New York (or Austin) for the first time insisting that every waiter and policeman speak French. I always initiate conversations in my rudimentary French. After a couple of tortured sentences, they usually say, “Wouldn’t you rather speak English?” with a slight British accent and an appreciation that I tried.
Most unpleasant incidents of apparent French rudeness occur between non-French speaking tourists and French waiters. What most offended mono-lingual English-speakers fail to appreciate is the often curt relationship between the French themselves and their waiters, for whom an air of mild exasperation is de rigueur. This attitude is likely based on the fact they don’t work for tips. Fifteen percent of every restaurant bill is for service, by law included in the original price along with an almost 20% value added tax. Waiters usually get no more additional tip than a few left over centimes. Hence, indifference if not borderline surliness becomes an inherent ocupational hazzard.
An underappreciated facet in French rudeness is that Paris, where it is invariably considered to be the worst; gets 25 million foreign visiters a year, at least 8 times the resident population. Paris is the world’s most popular tourist destination. Tourists are a constant feature of the Parisian’s reality. Locals know that tourism is a significant portion of their livelihood – 7% of their national economy – and deep down they must be flattered by the attention, but the persistent frictions with tourists ignorant of local customs are bound to get very old. How might Austin waiters react to Austin having 4-5 million foreign visitors a year who didn’t speak much English, yet expected to have their every whim catered to with unswerving graciousness?
Several special factors apply to Americans. In the same poll that rated the French the most rude; Americans were rated the least sophisticated and having the worst food. This doesn’t deter many Americans from the conviction they are God’s chosen people, paragons of taste, saviors of the French and deserving of special deference. This not-uncommon attitude goes over particularly badly with the French who have a lofty regard for their own culture that is very widely acknowleged, even in the US. When confronted by American hubris, they tend to respond by regarding us as bloated barbarians with bulging billfolds.
So, OK, they’re rude, perhaps especially to Americans. Their ultimate excuse is that it is self-defense. If they were nice too, they might have 50 million tourists a year with McDonalds and Starbucks proliferating on every street corner, and it wouldn’t be Paris anymore.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a political blog? Problem with me is that France seems to be sapping my political energy. Everyday we’re here seems to make me more complacent. You may have to relegate my musings to the “Lifestyle” section until I get back to the US and regain my normal pissed off frame of mind. There is a political scandal of sorts here, refered to as “Coldstream,” but even the French don’t seem very interested in it. Our French friends mention a pervasive “malaise”. Hung out last night with Billy “Mac” Haile who lived in Austin in the 70’s, – danced with Stanley Hall at the Austin Ballet Theater – came to Paris to dance at the Lido in a G-string (“all tits and feathers”), and has lived here over 20 years since. We talked a lot about the digestive problems of his cute little pair of French bulldogs who love company, but fart without restraint.