PARIS – It’s a July evening on the terrace of the legendary Café Flore. A coiffed woman sips chilled wine, another savors her chocolate eclair.
The one thing to complete a perfect picture of Parisian life? A dash of French rudeness.
It comes from the waiter, who snootily turns away a group of tourists: “There’s no point waiting,” he shrugs, even though there are many empty tables. “No space outside.”
Such rituals of rudeness have long been accepted by visitors as part of the price of enjoying such a beautiful city as Paris. But it seems the French themselves, who over centuries have turned rudeness into an art form, have become fed up with their own incivility, according to recent polls and publicity campaigns.
There’s a fabled history of French rudeness from Napoleon, who called the English a “nation of shopkeepers,” to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who infamously snarled at a voter: “Get lost, poor jerk.”
Now, bad manners and aggressive behavior top the list of causes of stress for the French, even higher than unemployment or the debt crisis, says pollster IPSOS. A total of 60 percent cited rudeness as their number one source of stress in a survey last year on social trends.
“We’re so rude,” says 34-year-old French teacher Stephane Gomez, as he comes out of a Paris metro station. “France lacks the civic sense that you find in Anglo-Saxon countries.”
“It’s so easy to be polite, but we don’t do it,” says 30-year-old Zahia Sebahi. “I never see someone give up their seat for an elderly person.”
But Paris’s public transport authority is leading the fight-back in a summer-long publicity campaign against rudeness.
Billboards depicting Frenchmen with animal heads have dominated metro stations; they target passengers who are rude to staff members and push and shove. “If you shove five people getting onboard,” the posters say, “it won’t make us set off faster.” Bus ads read: “One bonjour doesn’t cost a penny, and it changes your day.”
Transport officials say they’ve tried to keep a light touch on a serious matter.
“We used humor to not be moralistic,” says Isabelle Ockrent, RATP communications director. “But we’ve been alerted by our staff that there is a real problem.”
Public transport staff members even held “rudeness forums” over three days in late June in 20 metro stations, in which they exchanged views on correct etiquette with passengers.
Among other things, people were asked what they thought the root causes were for pushing and shoving: Lack of time? Unhappiness? Many Parisians attribute the decreasing tolerance to rudeness to the fast-pace of the Internet age, with i-Pods on the metro and mobile phone noise in public spaces.
“It might seem obvious, but when stressed for work, Parisians forget ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ when asking for a ticket,” says Ockrent.
Parisians, it seems, may be pleased to be going back to finishing school.
Passengers regularly gawk at the ads, which have stretched from ceiling to floor inside some metro stations, and the RATP say the campaign has gotten near universal positive feedback on it.
The results of this year’s IPSOS trend research won’t be published until fall. But the agency can already reveal that the backlash against rudeness is rising.
“In 2012, one thing is clear: the French are irritated and want a return to good manners. They’ve had enough of rudeness ... reached a limit,” says Lise Brunet, IPSOS’s director of trend studies.
“The acceleration of life with cellphones means that people have even less time to follow the rules of politeness,” adds Brunet. “Today, it’s even more of a concern than the economic crisis. People just want to hear ‘Thank you.’”
In France, the world’s most visited country, rudeness is also a concern for tourism companies – especially as France feels the bite of the financial crisis.
Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency, launched a summer campaign in regions where tourism is suffering to promote service quality.
“We’re very aware of the problem making tourists feel welcome,” says Fanny Moutel, communications director for Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency. “We’ve noticed that there are fewer English visiting places like Brittany and Normandy and the Loire, so the campaign aims to improve the way tourists are treated.”
Where English-speaking tourists were once greeted with raised eyebrows and a Gallic shrug, more and more French in the service industry speak English.
That’s just one of the many ways in which France is changing.
Earlier this week on a high-speed train, there were puzzled smiles from passengers after a decidedly un-French loudspeaker address:
“Hello, welcome, please greet your neighbor, and may you adopt a zen attitude.”