A Quest to Make Gruff Service in France More Gracious
By Liz Alderman, NY Times, August 20, 2013
PARIS—On a recent afternoon near the Place de la Bastille, Alberto Riberio, a tourist from Spain, stopped with his family at a quaint cafe and asked a waiter if they could sit down. “Look around!” he recalled the waiter replying abruptly. “You see empty tables, don’t you?”
When the family tried to order food in halting French, the waiter rolled his eyes, Mr. Riberio said. Later, when a wrong dish was served, an argument ensued over whether it would be changed.
"In general, the French can be quite friendly and helpful," said Mr. Riberio, whose family went on to have a pleasant stay. But the encounter "was a reminder of why they can also have a reputation for being rude," he said.
In the City of Light, an eternal question is once again spurring debate: Is the stereotype of the brusque Frenchman justified, or do visitors just not understand the French?
The soul-searching is coming from an unlikely place: the Paris tourism board. It is ramping up a charm offensive to burnish the image of France—and Paris in particular—as a kinder place for tourists. Officials have been deluging cafes, hotels, shops and taxi ranks with 20,000 more pamphlets titled “Do You Speak Touriste?”, a manual on how to make travelers feel more welcome, after 35,000 copies handed out in July ran out.
The British, it advises, want to be called by their first names. The Japanese need to feel reassured. The Spanish mainly want people to be nice. (“I would agree with that,” Mr. Riberio said.) As for Americans, the guide notes, they are glued to their personal devices and want to eat as early as 6 p.m.—a frightful thought to a typical Parisien.
"The goal is to fight against a bad reputation, and improve the quality of the welcome in Paris," said François Navarro, the communication director for the tourism board, the Comité Régional du Tourisme Paris Île-de-France. With 30 million tourists a year, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, he said. "But we can do more."
How much more remains to be seen. Paul Kappe, an owner of the renowned Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis, perched behind the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, gave a Gallic shrug when he saw the brochure.
"It starts with the assumption that the French are disagreeable," said Mr. Kappe, a contemplative man who kept a watchful eye on the restaurant’s sunny terrace, full of waiters and patrons crammed behind tiny tables. "Well, that does have the ring of truth," he said. "But it won’t stop a waiter from being unpleasant."
He added, “Their mentality is, ‘Don’t bother me when I’m working.’”
The campaign holds special importance as France begins to overcome an economic malaise that has deepened a sense of moroseness in the country. This month, the French federation of hotels and restaurants reported a 10 percent fall in tourism this year compared with a year ago.
Perhaps more challenging is the growing competition that Paris faces, not only from rivals like London, New York and Barcelona, but also from upstart tourist destinations in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, more than 20 percent of the world’s vacationers visited an Asian city; the region earned $324 billion in international tourism receipts—a full 30 percent of the global total, according to a United Nations World Tourism Organization report. By contrast, the United States earned $126 billion from tourism, while France earned $54 billion, less than China and Spain, the report said.
"There’s a huge economic battle going on between the world’s tourism capitals," Mr. Navarro said. Just 15 years ago, he said, there were about 60 major destinations; today, there are about 600. "If we don’t improve our service, we will lose money."
But is the effort really necessary? After all, countless visitors leave the French capital enchanted by their experience, having never lived the legend of snooty service.
To many foreigners, Paris is easier to navigate than ever. Today, English has become the new French for an army of young Parisien waiters who switch between the languages with ease, and even pride, when they hear a foreign accent. And many of the 600,000 Parisiens employed in the tourism industry place a premium on politesse.
Still, “snobisme” is hardly a relic of the past, and even the French complain about a perceived lack of civility among some of their big-city brethren. A spate of mocking television ads by the newspaper Le Parisien a few years ago, showing Parisiens cutting in line and leaving poodle droppings on the sidewalk, provoked knowing laughs. And this is by no means the first time the government has encouraged a more polished image: in 1995, a “Bonjour” campaign urged people to be pleasant to tourists, echoing several similar efforts since World War II.
Of course, tourists can be uncouth, too. “A lot of Americans shout, or don’t say hello, and then they say the French treated them rudely,” said Karen Fawcett, the president of BonjourParis, a Web site that dispenses travel and cultural insights. “If you don’t have some cultural sensitivity, you are probably not going to be well received.”
Ms. Fawcett said her main tips for visitors were to be polite, keep their voices down and not assume they will be served immediately. “A simple ‘bonjour’ or a ‘s’il vous plaît’ will go a long way,” she said.
Mr. Kappe at the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis said waiters appreciated engaging with clients. All of the brasserie’s servers were longtime professionals, dressed impeccably in white shirts and long black aprons. Their smiles were hardly effusive, but they poured wine with an expert turn of the wrist and counseled diners on the “plat du jour.” On the other hand, some deftly ignored patrons clamoring for a bill.
"In the United States," Mr. Kappe observed, "waiters can be fired at any time and must work for tips, so they have to be nice. In France, you can’t just fire somebody if they’re not doing a good job. If you could, everyone would be friendly."