Paris Olympic Games | The French ready to welcome visitors… with a smile?

Paris is in the home stretch of preparations for the Olympic Games. A new 8,000-seat arena has opened in the north of Paris, the Olympic village was inaugurated by Emmanuel Macron at the start of March, and authorities are still desperately trying to make the Seine swimmable by summer. The country is slowly but surely preparing to welcome the more than 15 million visitors who will descend on the capital and its suburbs in July and August. But there is still something to consider, something a little less tangible.

Are Parisians ready to welcome these visitors? To really welcome them?

France has a bad reputation when it comes to friendliness. There is, of course, the long-standing cliché of the snobbish French waiter or the cantankerous Parisian, and a viral TikTok post earlier this year of an American woman tearfully telling the camera that traveling to France was ” isolating” and that the French were not welcoming, sparked thousands of comments, many of whom agreed with her.

“I think that 15 or 20 years ago, the French were perhaps less welcoming, but today we have moved beyond this cliché. There’s bound to be a small percentage of people who aren’t nice, and there’s not much we can do about it. It’s a reality in big cities, like London or New York,” says Corinne Ménégaux, director of the Paris Tourist Office.

“There is always the café waiter who doesn’t speak to you and sullenly serves you a Coca-Cola for 15 euros. I’m not saying it no longer exists. But we have seen a real improvement,” assures Frédéric Hocquard, municipal councilor responsible for tourism and nightlife in Paris.

According to him, the COVID-19 pandemic was the big turning point. “There was a period when we didn’t have any tourists at all. The tourism industry then realized that it had to make an effort. »

The etiquette of a good host… and a good tourist


Tourists take photos of the Eiffel Tower.

Part of the efforts made by Paris to restore its image is reflected in a “charter of hospitality”, signed by more than 1,600 companies in the tourism sector, from hotels to restaurants including tourist guides. Signatory companies will be able to put a sticker or sign on their establishment so that tourists know that it is a place of trust. The City also trains employees of newsstands, bakeries and tobacco shops so that they can answer tourists’ questions.

Ménégaux and Hocquard agree on one point: visitors to Paris must also make their share of efforts. In an ideal world, Ménégaux would like tourists to sign a charter of “good tourist etiquette” themselves.

Differences in etiquette are among the first things some foreigners notice when visiting or moving to France.

Ember Langley and Gabrielle Pedriani, American expatriates and content creators on social networks, devoted a video to the thorny question of French politeness in their TikTok series “The ABCs of Paris”. In the video, Mme Langley warns that “what is considered polite in the United States is not necessarily considered polite in Paris.” They go on to give advice such as “Smile less,” “Start a debate over dinner,” and “Arrive late, as you should.”

“When you’re a traveler and you come here on vacation, it’s easy to forget that 2 million people live here. You must be respectful of the local culture and approach your interactions with humility,” says Langley, for whom it is false to believe that the French are rude; it is simply a matter of cultural differences. “The most important thing here is that the customer is not always right; in the United States, the customer is king. »

The politeness of Parisians put to the test

I decided to put the friendliness of Parisians to the test. As a Brit who has lived in Paris for a decade, speaks French and has even obtained French citizenship (with immense gratitude), I put on my best British accent and went to see how I was treated in the French capital.

First stop: a second-hand bookstore. These booksellers on the banks of the Seine must answer tourists’ questions day after day. The man who runs his kiosk in front of the cathedral took the time to find us some books in English, before recommending that we go see Shakespeare and Company just opposite, one of the most famous English-speaking bookstores in Paris . It was the same at the tourist knickknack shop, where we asked for directions to the Eiffel Tower.

Now, the ultimate test: asking for oat milk in a Parisian café. We chose a touristy place on Place Saint-Michel, where the waiters were quite stereotypical, in white shirts and black bow ties. Our waiter approached us haughtily, but didn’t flinch when we answered him in English, even though he didn’t understand my question at first. “Hot milk?” », he kept repeating. When he finally understood, he started laughing, waving his hands dismissively. “No, no, that’s not possible, soy milk, vegan milk, we don’t have any, there’s only cow milk. » To mark the occasion, he added with a big smile: “Meuuuhhh! »

My request had elicited the famous “it’s not possible” – well known to anyone who has encountered French bureaucracy and customer service – but it was said with such good humor (and a complementary animal sound) , so how could I have been offended?

This article was originally published by the Washington Post.

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