France tries to shed its rude reputation ahead of the Olympics

Paris is in the home stretch of preparing for the Olympics. A new 8,000-capacity arena has been opened in the north of Paris, the Olympic Village was inaugurated by Emmanuel Macron in early March, and authorities are still desperately trying to make sure the Seine is swimmable by the summer. The country is slowly but surely getting ready for the more than 15 million visitors that will descend on the capital and its suburbs between July and August. But there’s still something to consider - something a bit less tangible.

Are Parisians ready to welcome these visitors? Like really welcome?

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

France gets a bad rap when it comes to friendliness. There’s, of course, the long-standing cliché of the snooty French waiter or the surly Parisian, and a viral TikTok earlier this year of an American woman tearfully telling the camera that traveling in France was “isolating” and that French people were unwelcoming got thousands of comments - many from people agreeing with her.

“This kind of bad PR doesn’t worry me because it’s anecdotal,” says Corinne Ménégaux, the head of the Paris tourism office. “I think maybe 15 or 20 years ago the French were less welcoming, but nowadays we’ve got past that cliché. You inevitably have a small percentage of people who aren’t nice, and there’s not much you can do about it. It’s a reality of big cities, just like in London or New York.”

That hasn’t stopped France trying to clean up its rude image before foreigners come to town. Last year, the regional chamber of commerce updated a decade-old hospitality campaign called “Do You Speak Touriste?” in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup held in Paris. The official guide touched on cultural differences, gently reminding the French that “The cultural tendency in France is to openly show one’s emotions, through one’s gestures or tone of voice. […] In other countries, disagreement is expressed a lot less openly.”

“There’s still the cafe waiter who doesn’t speak to you and sullenly serves you a Coca-Cola for 15 euros. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist anymore. But we have seen a real improvement,” said Frédéric Hocquard, the city councilor responsible for tourism and nightlife in Paris. He says that the covid-19 pandemic was the great turning point.

“There was this period when we had no tourists at all. And the tourist industry realized it had to make a bit of effort.”

Part of Paris’ effort to revamp its reputation is a “hospitality charter,” which has been signed by more than 1,600 businesses in the tourism sector, from hotels to restaurants to tour guides. The agreement is based around three main principles: promote sustainable and environmentally friendly measures; make visitors’ experiences more fluid; and support local businesses. Businesses that have signed up will be able to display a sticker or sign on their establishment so that tourists know that they’re a trusted place. The city is also training workers in newspaper kiosks, bakeries and tobacco shops to be able to answer tourists’ questions.

Both Ménégaux and Hocquard agree on one point: Visitors to Paris also have to do their part. . In an ideal world, Ménégaux would like tourists to sign a “good tourist etiquette” charter of their own. “When people come to Paris, we want them to commit to respecting certain things: to respect their neighbors’ peace and quiet, to use a reusable water bottle and not buy plastic ones and not to buy products made in China when you can buy local.”

Differences in etiquette are among the first things some foreigners notice when they move to or visit France. American expats and social media content creators Ember Langley and Gabrielle Pedriani devoted a video to the thorny issue of French politesse in their lighthearted TikTok series, “The ABCs of Paris.” In the video, Langley warns, “What’s considered polite in the U.S. might not be considered polite in Paris.” The two go on to give tips such as “Smile less”, “Get into a debate over dinner” and “Arrive fashionably late.”

“I see Americans in the Metro and it’s like - read the room. Everyone else is being quiet!” Langley said in an interview. “When you’re a traveler, and you’re coming here on vacation, it’s easy to forget that 2 million people are living their lives here. You need to be respectful of the local culture and approach your interactions humbly.” But Langley says it’s a misconception that the French are rude; it’s just a matter of cultural differences. “The biggest thing here is that the customer is not always right; in the U.S., the customer is king.”

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

The experiment began at ground zero: in front of Notre Dame cathedral, which is still blocked off and undergoing renovation work after an enormous fire engulfed the roof in 2019. With a friend, I headed into the archaeological museum in the crypt. “Hello! Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked the woman behind the ticket desk. I was greeted with a broad smile and patient description - in English - of the museum and ticket prices. She wasn’t even bothered by a patently stupid question about whether we could visit the cathedral, gently explaining that the site wouldn’t be open to the public for months.

We thanked her and headed back up into the sunlight.

Next stop: a bouquiniste. These Seine-side booksellers have to tackle tourist questions day in, day out. The man running his stall opposite the cathedral cheerfully took the time to find books in English for us, before recommending that we try Shakespeare and Company just across the road, one of Paris’s most famous English-language bookstores. It was the same at the tourist trinket shop, where we asked for directions to the Eiffel Tower or down in the Metro station, where the woman behind the counter told us that her English wasn’t very good and yet valiantly answered all of our questions about transport passes with broken but determined English.

By this point, I had even ditched my poorly-pronounced French icebreaker, just bouncing up to them and speaking directly in English. And yet everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and a genuine desire to help. I’ll admit that I was surprised - it’s been years since I was a tourist in the city, but I certainly remember eye-rolling, terseness and a certain unwillingness to help.

It was time for the ultimate test: asking for oat milk in a Parisian cafe. We chose a touristy spot on the Place Saint-Michel, where the servers were every inch the stereotype, in white shirts and black bow ties. Our server swept up to us haughtily but didn’t blink when we responded in English, even though he initially couldn’t understand my question. “Hot milk?” he kept repeating. When he finally understood, he laughed, waving his hands dismissively. “Non, non, it is not possible, soy milk, vegan milk, we do not have, only la vache.” To make his point, he added with a flourish, “Moooo!”

My request had managed to elicit the famous “c’est pas possible” - well-known to anyone who has struggled with French bureaucracy and customer service - but it was said with such good humor (and a complementary animal sound), so how could I be offended?

The more than a dozen tourists I spoke to had also had largely positive experiences. Samantha Capaldi, visiting from Arizona with two friends, told me, “We love it here,” before admitting with a wry smile, “We’re trying to blend in but we’re so loud, everyone notices us.” In the four days they’d spent in Paris, they’d observed the same cultural differences Langley mentions in her videos - such as not getting tap water automatically with your meal at a restaurant, or being given a funny look when ordering an appetizer alongside an entree. “They kind of laugh at us, but not in a mean way,” she continued. “Trying to speak French helps a lot.”

Carla, from Sheffield in the United Kingdom, was in Paris with her boyfriend Brian to celebrate the anniversary of their first date. She’s visited Paris several times and has noticed a marked difference in the way she’s been treated compared to previous trips. “I’m a bit of a weightier person and I’ve been deliberately ignored in restaurants before - other people being given menus before me or served before me. But I rarely get that now. Everyone seems really nice.”

It seems that the city’s efforts in recent years are paying off and Parisians are - dare I say it? - learning that a little hospitality goes a long way. The only thing left is being able to get oat milk in cafes - but maybe it’s up to Americans to let that go and lean into France’s love of dairy. Mooo!

- - -

Catherine Bennett is a writer based in Paris.

Related Content

Why Highway 1 is the climate challenge that California can’t fix

Trump advisers explore vast new legal powers for global trade war

DEI is getting a new name. Can it dump the political baggage?