French Politeness

Toronto Star Weekly/April 15, 1922

Paris.—The days of Alphonse and Gaston are over. French politeness has gone the way of absinthe, pre-war prices and other legendary things. It has become so bad that French newspapers have carried columns of discussion on the question of how the French can regain the position they once held as the politest people in the world.

There is such pushing in the Pans subway, cheating women of their seats in the crowded buses, violent rows over prices, barefaced demands for tips in the once polite city that the person who knew Paris in the days before the war would turn away in horror. It is a very different Paris from the old days when the French people enjoyed a world reputation for pleasant gentleness, affability, and instinctive kind attention.

Cabdrivers, of course, always have been discourteous. They are so because they expect never to see their fares again, in a city of tens of thousands of drifting cabs, and have one object: to see how much they can get out of their trip.

It is a safe generalization that no non-French-speaking person ever paid the fare shown on the cab meter and supplemented it with a ten percent tip without having the cabby follow him into his destination cursing and raving that he has been cheated. It is simply a case of the cabdriver having found that there is as much money in doing that as in driving a cab.

The Paris buses provide the worst instances of the new rudeness. You rise in a bus to offer a lady your seat and a walrus-mustached Frenchman plops into it, leaving you and the lady standing. If you say anything to him, he will roar something like this at you: “Eject me if you dare. Try it! Lay just one finger on me and I will have you before the police!”

As a matter of fact, h is in a strongly entrenched position. No matter what the provocation, a foreigner must keep his temper in France. The French engage in some terrific battles with each other, but they are entirely verbal. Once you put a finger on a man, no matter how aggravating the circumstances, you are guilty of assault and go to jail for a term running upward from six months.

Next to the buses and subways, the minor government officials give the most offense to courtesy. These are the men in parks and museums, not the police; for the police, through the most trying times, have remained courteous, polite and obliging.

For instance, there is the reptile house in the Jardin des Plantes, the great Paris zoological gardens. People were coming out of the door of the reptile house when I went up to it. It was placarded as being open from eleven to three o’clock. It was twelve o’clock when I tried to enter.

“Is the reptile house closed?” I asked.

“Ferme!” the guard said.

“Why is it closed at this hour?” I asked.

“Ferme!” shouted the guard.

“Can you tell me when it will be open?” I queried, still polite.

The guard gave me a snarl and said nothing.

“Can you tell me when it will be open?” I asked again.

“What business is that of yours?” said the guard, and slammed the door.

Then there is the office where you go to get your passports stamped in order to leave Paris. There is a large sign on the wall saying employees are paid and that it is forbidden to tip them. The visa costs two francs forty centimes. I gave the clerk, back of the long board counter, five francs. He made no move to give me any change and when I stood there he sneered at me and said, “Oh. You want the change, do you?” and slammed it down on the counter angrily.

Those are all samples of the type of thing one encounters daily in Paris. Marcel Boulanger, writing in the Figaro, holds out hope for the future.

“But I believe that the soul of good society is still fine enough and at bottom—clear at the bottom, alas—sufficiently gracious,” he says, after deploring the present state of politeness in France.

“Three centuries of civilization and of the spirit of the salon are not to be lost in four or five years. Nothing good is done without trouble. Observe the fashion in which, except in the homes of the newly rich, one introduces the son of a celebrity! One never says in a breath, ‘Monsieur So and So, son of the illustrious Monsieur So and So,’ as if the only reason the son had to exist were to carry the name of his famous father. On the contrary, one shades the introduction in spite of himself: ‘Monsieur So and So,’ says one. Then, after an instant, and smiling gently: ‘Monsieur So and So is the son of the illustrious Monsieur So and So.’ Thanks to the pause, the remark takes on the air of a courtesy between you, as if you were congratulating the father on having such a son.

“A thousand precautions of taste still arc part of the current conversation and may be reinstated. They form a powerful arm which in ordinary times a man carries against wretchedness.”

(Source: William White, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Dateline: Toronto. Simon and Schuster, 2002.)