How France is getting Parisians to be nice

2013-01-09 12:01

Paris - The "City of Light" may draw more tourists than most world capitals, but Paris less than sparkles to the legions of visitors shocked to find its residents can be rude, brusque and snobbish.

The first glimpse many get of Paris, the Charles de Gaulle international airport was ranked the world's worst on a CNN blog in 2011, which complained of a warren-like layout, grimy washrooms and above all "dismissive staff".

"Waiting for a connection here is like being in custody," one traveller complained.

Not only are Parisians contemptuous of travellers to their town, they also behave badly towards each other, so the reputation goes, and the city's waiters treat patrons like dirt.

A Japanese psychiatrist practising in Paris for three decades has even identified what he calls "a Paris syndrome" among compatriots new to a city synonymous in their minds with elegance and refinement.

"They arrive with an image out of sync with reality," said the doctor, who asked not to be named.

"They never expected a 'welcome' that is so aggressive and indifferent. They experience fear and symptoms of anxiety."

The latest to join in on-again-off-again attempts by the city to persuade locals to mind their manners, Paris' public transport authorities, have launched a tongue in cheek poster campaign on the SNCF rail and RATP bus and metro networks, featuring pushy animals.

One shows a hen squawking into a mobile phone in a crowded bus, one a buffalo barging into a commuter train, another a messy warthog leaving snacks and trash on the next seat.

"Very French problem"

"This is a very French problem," said SNCF head Guillaume Pepy, who says the issue extends beyond the capital.

He said the SNCF will recruit 100 "mediators" to remind passengers "that no, you do not smoke on trains; no, you do not put your feet up on the seat opposite you, and no, you do not destroy the fittings because they belong to the public."

An old French term, "incivility", is increasingly heard in public speech as the euphemism for plain old inconsiderate behaviour.

The worst, said bus driver Tarik Gouijjane, are passengers on the late-night buses.

"Spitting and the finger up sign are common currency," he said. "People openly drink alcohol, smoke joints and put their feet on the seats."

"I don't know if these campaigns will have any effect but they're definitely responding to a need," said sociologist Dominique Picard, author of a 2007 book on manners and "savoir vivre".

Paris has not always such an image problem. "When good Americans die, they go to Paris," famously said Thomas Gold Appleton, a 19th-century Boston wit.

Yet today, "everyone complains that these incivilities are on the rise. And in all social classes," said sociologist Picard.

French news weekly Marianne blamed Parisians' perceived boorishness on stress.

It said people were under more stress than in other parts of France, faced with longer commutes and working hours in a fast-paced and increasingly overcrowded city which with its suburbs is home to more than 11 million people.

Figures released by the RATP bear this out. A study, it said, showed 97 percent of the dense crowd who use the bus and metro daily had witnessed "incivilities" in the previous month, and a surprising 63 percent admitted having been "incivil" to fellow passengers.

The RATP's response was a campaign encouraging passengers to "exchange a kind smile while commuting".

Not all are down on Parisians, however. "For years I've been denying the French are rude. People simply don't understand cultural differences," said American blogger Karen Fawcett on her site Bonjour Paris.

Traditionally in France, the slightest eye contact - be it in a lift, a shop or in public transport - draws a "good day" greeting. It is likewise a sacrosanct prefix before any enquiry, something about which tourists are not necessary aware.

"Parisians tend to be like people who live and work in Manhattan and don't necessarily make nice-nice to strangers," Fawcett wrote. "It's their responsibility to learn about French culture and mores, before making grand pronouncements that they're not well treated as soon as they land on Gallic soil."

Others find their own way to encourage manners, like cafe owner Patrick Laubignant in the southwestern town of Marciac, which hosts a well-know jazz festival in the summer.

This year, he imposed an "impolite" tax. The ubiquitous expresso, for which he charges 1.80 euros (R20), rises to two euros if customers forget to say "please".

- SAPA-AFP

 
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