French Charm

The World-Beating rudeness of the French

The crassness of the French is as world famous as its cheeses – and as offensive. A deserved reputation? It would be rude not to look further.

Begin with the Japanese. A people so well-mannered, their national language is the bow. The Japanese are famous for weird fads ranging from vertical pinball to David Beckham and now, the weirdest, the French Japan Times reports that two million Japanese visit France every year. And it is driving them madder.

It is called “Paris Syndrome”, a term coined by Dr. Hiroaki Ota, a Paris-based psychiatrist who practised in St. Anne’s, the city’s main mental hospital. The symptoms of this clinical depression usually appear after three months in France. A quarter of cases require hospitalisation. 

He hears the same complaints over and over: ”They [Parisians] laugh at my French”, “They don’t like me”, “I feel ridiculous in front of them”. The disorder has a progression: first, mild anxiety, then a growing persecution complex, fear of leaving home, despair and sometimes suicide. The cause is always the same: a bad social experience with the French, triggering a profound sense of cultural alienation. 

Tadahiko Kondo, 59, a conference organiser, fell ill on arrival in Paris: “Everything was unpleasant. People were cold, rude and never smiled... [People] who come to France think it is all about Louis Vuitton and gastronomy. They become depressed because France is not like that.”

The ailment is dismissed as largely imaginary by Bernard Delage, the – French – president of L’Association Jeunes Japon (Young Japan), an organisation designed to help Japanese expatriates in France: “The problem is with a relatively small number of girls, spoiled types who come out with daddy’s money to experience the freedom. But find they can’t cope in France.” He has the good grace to add: “..Of course, Parisians are indeed unusually awful.”

France’s reputation for rudeness to visitors is legendary. Like most legends, it has a basis in reality. Recent surveys all confirm the belief that the French like nothing better than to flip off foreigners in a thousand subtle ways.

The post-office clerk who won't give you change on a €10 note when you try to buy a stamp; the banker who won’t take your traveller’s cheques, although the issuer's logo is pasted on the bank's door; the cafe waiters who ignore your flailing arms even though you've been waiting twenty minutes for the bill; the store assistants who watch fish-eyed as you struggle to make yourself understood in mangled French and then, only after the money has changed hands, reveals that they spoke your own language perfectly. (That’s an old trick. “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” Mark Twain in 1879).

To be fair, the French are equal opportunity insulters. French jokes focus on Belgians for stupidity, Occitans (southern French) and Corsicans for laziness, Bretons (from Brittany) for being poor, and Auvergnats (from the Auvergne) are supposed to be cheap. 

In The French (1982), Theodore Zeldin records the misery of ordinary French people who have a French regional accent in France. He quotes historian Rémy Pech, who has become a fervent Oc separatist: “There will one day be a [France] in which people will be better... What needs to be destroyed first is their contempt…”

Where does this contempt come from? Maybe self-protection. France is a relatively new country. Its boundaries in today’s form date only from 1919 (or even from 1935 when the Saar region voted to join Nazi Germany rather than be French). It includes formerly independent states like Brittany, Languedoc and Navarre; Aquitaine once belonged to England; Nice and Savoy were annexed only in 1860. 

The elites in “true France”, Paris, and its outlying territories making up the Ile-De-France, developed rudeness to emphasise superiority over the regions; in turn, the regional populations developed their own forms of rudeness as a passive resistance to Paris.

The problem is real, according to the Plasait Report, a 2004 government investigation into the decline of tourism in France. The report criticised a lack of warmth and professionalism amongst service staff and a failure to treat customers, both foreign and domestic, as a friend. The Report concludes with 81 proposals on how the French can become better hosts. Tourism Minister Leon Bertrand said, “Our aim is to let tourists know that France is trying to improve…and the French that they have to do better.”

The irony is that the French are acutely sensitive to incivility directed at them. In November 2004, a sign appeared in the visa section of the French Consulate in New York telling applicants that “rudeness will result in the denial of the application and denied entry into France.” 

When the Washington Post headlined the story, it got the snappy response from Natalie Loiseau, press attaché at the French Embassy: “A visa is a privilege, not a right. We are a sovereign nation, just like the United States, and we can decide who gets a visa and who does not.” 

No, since European Union Law states that a visa refusal by one country means that all the other 24 EU states must also deny entry to the applicant. The other member countries thought that this was too harsh a penalty for ruffling the feathers of a French immigration clerk. The sign was removed.

Other French public officials, even the highest, are equally prickly. During a 2002 European Union Conference, one of them turned on mild-mannered, milk-and-water Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK, during a discussion on EU subsidies to French farmers and told him: “You have been very rude and I have never been spoken to like this before.” In a fury, he cancelled an Anglo-French Summit scheduled later in the year. The speaker was the man European Commission officials call “The World’s Rudest Frenchman”, President Jacques Chirac.


Paris Syndrome: “A Japanese woman in her twenties stopped a well-dressed Frenchman in the Opera Métro station yesterday and asked him in broken English for help with a public telephone. He replied with a finger in the air and walked on, leaving another potential candidate for ‘Paris Syndrome’... a state of depression which hits [foreigners] who come to live in the City of Light.” Charles Bremner, London Times newspaper, Dec. 14 2004

And It’s Official. “The French are arrogant, rude and surly’, says former Senator Bernard Plasait. ‘Our bad image in this area, the arrogance we are accused of, our refusal to speak foreign languages, the sense we give that it's a great honour to visit us are among the ugly facts of which we should not be proud.” His official government report on tourism in France (November 2004)

Survey Says... Ding! 

Lonely Planet’s survey of independent travellers votes France “the least hospitable country in the world”.

Ipsos survey of world travellers who were asked which European countries they most enjoy visiting place France  fourth.

But... Reader’s Digest poll of 4,000 Europeans makes the French only the second-rudest people on the Continent, runners-up to the world-beating Germans who, unlike the French, simply don’t know they’re being rude.

Historic RudenessYesterday and Today: 

“I do not dislike the French for the vulgar antipathy between neighbouring nations, but for their insolent and unfounded airs of superiority.” Horace Walpole, English Writer, 1787

“An isolated & helpless young girl is perfectly safe from insult by a Frenchman, if he is dead.” Mark Twain, US Humorist, 1883

“It’s said that Parisians don’t like the rest of the people who live in France, and with that in mind, what chance would an out-of-town skateboarder have of receiving a welcome greeting? To tell the truth, very little. Parisians go out of their way to make you feel shitty. Taxi drivers rip you off for every penny they can, waitresses look at you like you’ve just farted as you explain how you are a vegetarian, and the hotel staff makes you feel about as welcome as diarrhoea on a chairlift.” Transworld Skateboarding Magazine Vol. 18 #2 2004

The World’s Rudest Frenchman

Early in his career, President Chirac’s aggressiveness was already a national joke. French schoolchildren in the 1970s and 1980s who threw a fit were often taunted for ‘faire un Chirac’ (‘doing a Chirac’).

When prime minister in 1988, he swore at his British opposite number, Margaret Thatcher, during an official discussion. Helmut Kohl, then German chancellor, directed him to apologise.

“These countries are very rude and rather reckless of the danger of aligning themselves too quickly with the Americans. If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU, they couldn't have chosen a better way.” Jacques Chirac, 2003, lecturing Eastern European countries who backed the US position on Iraq, rather than France's.

French journalists Henri Vernet and Thomas Cantaloube report a conversation by a senior White House aide in their 2004 book Chirac contre Bush – l'autre guerre (Chirac versus Bush - the other war): “The relationship between your President and ours is irreparable on the personal level. You have to understand that President Bush knows exactly what President Chirac thinks of him.” The journalists reveal that the USA regularly eavesdrops on the telephone conversations of President Chirac in the Elysée Palace and while they do not say what the notoriously blunt-spoken M Chirac says of Mr Bush, they quote the US President as habitually referring to the Frenchman as ‘the Jackass’.

Mon 04 July, 2005, reported by Reuters. French President Jacques Chirac cracked jokes to Russian and German leaders about bad British food and mad cow disease. Chirac was overheard making a series of jokes at Britain's expense to Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the sidelines of a meeting in Kaliningrad, Russia. “The only thing they (the English) have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease,” Chirac quipped. He took the opportunity of a receptive audience to snipe at British food. “You can't trust people who cook as badly as that,” he joked, the paper said. “After Finland, it's the country with the worst food.”


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