The Rudeness Tax

I’ve written before about the ongoing War on Rudeness in France. While awareness and education are great, the newest weapon in the anti-rudeness arsenal may just be the most effective yet: a rudeness tax.

rudeness tax

Go to La Petite Syrah in Nice, and you’ll find that ordering “a coffee” sets you back 7 euros, while adding a “please” to your order saves you 2.75 euros and a bonjour on top of that brings your total down to just 1.40. At this one café, at least, it pays to be polite. And as for those determined to be rude, they can still do so– for a price.

Is a hit to the wallet enough to change such deeply-ingrained behaviors as habitual rudeness? Was Voltaire right when he said, “When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion”? Do you think a small-scale policy like this has the power to change anything? Let us know, either in the comments here or on our facebook page.

Lady Marmalade vs. Fantine: The French Prostitution Debates

Among the many representations of prostitution related to French culture, the best known to Americans are without a doubt the following:

1. Fantine, the victim-prostitute from Les Misérables


2. Lady Marmalade, the  proudly fierce prostitute of the hit song.

Thanks to the lyrics of the latter, people who can’t otherwise string two words together in French can solicit sex like a pro. (Did you know that the chorus “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” comes from Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire? So says Wikipedia.)

So, why the post about prostitution? Because today, while Americans were shopping for their Black Friday deals, the French Assemblée nationale was duking it out over Maud Olivier ‘s (a distant relation of mine? no idea) proposed law to fight prostitution by going after the clients. The proposal would impose a 1,500 euro fine or a “stage de sensibilisation” (3,000 euros on strike two) on paying for sex. The law also offers help to prostitutes (in the form of at least 6 months stay in France and an underwhelming 336 euros a month) to get them out of the business. According to Le Monde80%-90% of prostitutes in France are foreigners (mostly from Bulgaria, Romania, Nigeria, Cameroon, China, and South America), so giving them a 6 month renewable stay in France would ease fears of swift deportation. The law is based on a Swedish law from 1999 that is said to have dramatically cut street prostitution—although with most of the sex trade working online, this isn’t as big a victory as one might hope.

You can watch the  Assemblée nationale debate the law in a largely empty session (looks like about 3/4 of the members were doing some Black Friday shopping of their own, or just avoiding taking a side) or watch the following 10-minute intro by Maud Olivier, who, naturally includes a quote by Victor Hugo (you didn’t think it was going to be “Lady Marmalade” did you?) before launching into some sobering statistics

The average age of a person entering prostitution is 14 yrs. Life expectancy of a prostitute is 42 yrs. Organized crime controls most of it. Doesn’t exactly fit the “Lady Marmalade” viewpoint. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to argue in favor of prostitution.

Among the press coverage, Le Monde included decided to represent the 15% of prostitutes who are male by profiling three gigolos in its article “Juste an escort boy.” One of the men, named Bug Powder, talks about how he doesn’t feel exploited, and another chimes in that they are not selling their bodies, just renting them (On vend une prestation, après, notre corps nous appartient toujours.). Deep thoughts, dude.

The paper Libération outdoes Le Monde by interviewing the real victims of this proposed law: the clients. Poor 27-yr-old Matthieu, for example, tells us “”Moi, je ne veux pas “baiser” avec une prostituée (ou alors, très rarement) : je veux faire l’amour avec elle !” (“I don’t want to f*** a prostitute (or at least, rarely): I want to make love to her!”). Sounds like a real sweetheart. It’s a wonder he can’t find a real girlfriend. Plus, he adds, who are we to tell them what to do? “Forcerait-on une fumeuse à arrêter la cigarette?” (“Would we force a smoker to stop smoking?”).

And what about the disillusioned 27-yr-old Eric, who paid for a prostitute in Barcelona, but felt “blocked”? “Moi j’étais un peu bloqué, j’avais l’impression qu’elles n’en voulaient qu’à mon argent et que je ne les intéressais pas.” (“I was a little blocked, I had the impression that they only wanted me for my money and that they weren’t really interested in me.”). Imagine that. Just keep trying, Eric. I’m sure there’s a Pretty Woman story just waiting to happen.

And then there’s the wisdom of 55-yr-old Alex: “Sa seule victoire, bien médiocre et d’une inutilité absolue, sera la plus grande frustration de ceux qui dans les faits n’ont pas accès à la sexualité et pour qui le recours à la prostitution, qu’elle qu’en soit la forme, est la seule voie possible.” (essentially, “The [law’s] only victory, very mediocre and absolutely useless, will be to increase the frustration of those whose only access to sexuality is through prostitution.”). I believe he (or one of the other Johns) uses the term liberticide. Give me prostitutes or give me death.

Worse still, the manifesto of the “343 Salauds” led by writer Frédéric Beigbeder, which is meant to provoke feminists by playing on the manifesto of the “343  Salopes” written by Simone de Beauvoir in 1971.  The Telegraph reports that celebs such as Catherine Deneuve and “Gerard Depardieu’s daughter” (so famous that your name doesn’t get mentioned) have fought for the rights of men to pay to use other people’s bodies.

In the media the French like to deride America’s puritanical values, but the fact is, the stats on prostitution have the U.S. looking even worse than the French.

Given the press coverage, I had low expectations for the Olivier’s proposal, but today’s vote was a victory—one that will leave the “343 salauds” very, very frustrated. The mesure penalizing the clients was passed. The entire law will go up for vote on December 4.

Update Dec 5: With 268 voting for, 138 against, and 79 abstentions, the law to fight prostitution passed yesterday.

“Do you speak Touriste?”, a guide to tourists in France

In case you didn’t know, there’s a stereotype about French service-industry workers and regular people: namely, that they’re brusque, rude, tourist-hating snobs. I’m not here to evaluate that idea one way or another. No, we have something much more interesting on our hands. You see, someone in France got tired of hearing about this stereotype and decided to try doing something about it.

The proposed solution: a guide, not for tourists, but for the French people who have to deal with them. A guide for the proper care and feeding, if you will, of the majestic creature that is the tourist in France.


It’s clear that this guide means well. It divides up tourists into their country of origin and gives generalizations of what kind of behavior and communication to expect, as well as providing stats about the average tourist’s visit.

Listen to some fun facts about Americans in Paris:

Très technophiles, ils utilisent largement les smartphones ou tablettes et sont demandeurs de connexion wifi pour la recherche d’informations.

(Rough translation: Being very much technophiles, they often use smartphones and tablets and demand a wifi connection for looking up information.)

ipad photography

So basically, we’re like this.

Ils ont besoin d’être rassurés sur les tarifs.

We apparently really need some reassurance, because:

Dépense moyenne par jour et par personne : 140 €

American tourists spend an average of 140 Euros ($188 as of this posting) per person per day while visiting Paris. Daaang!

Read more on the site, and you’ll find out that Spaniards are quick to use informal tu, Germans prefer to be left alone and find their own information, and the Chinese are “fervent lovers of shopping”.

I’m probably going to have to read everything on this site now, because it’s a hilarious role-reversal that allows the French to stereotype their tourists. It’s an anthropological gold-mine, and you might just find something that will make your own stay in France better for you and better for the French people forced to endure your presence.

You can look at the guide online (in French) for yourself. Here’s the home page.

French grammar books: unparalleled patriotism or right-wing conspiracy?

French grammar texts are obsessed with the French flag.

French grammar texts are obsessed with the French flag.

No one loves the French flag more than designers of French grammar books. No one…except, perhaps….

Far right propaganda (or maybe a Tide commercial)

Far right propaganda (or maybe a Tide commercial)

the Front National! Hmm….Could there be a connection? Could the xenophobic right-wing French political party be conspiring with designers of French grammar books to co-opt not only the French flag, but also the entire French language?

Well, no, actually. That would be insane.

But now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to rant about the laziest design decision of virtually every French language textbook on the market: tricolor flags and Eiffel Towers.

I contend that nothing could be less French than a book all tarted up in the tricolore. Now, if we were talking about a book of American Grammar, I would say, Go for it! Slap American flags all over that baby! We Americans are all about ostentatious displays of patriotism:

dudeinflagshirtandhat dudeinflagpants dudeinflagshirt


Don’t even think about denying us our right to plaster our flag all over our bodies (look how much trouble Roger Ebert got into in 2010 when he “made the mistake of using irony and wit” in a post about kids wearing flag shirt at school).

But the French don’t like to wear their patriotism on the sleeves. Sporting events (but even then, it’s jerseys) and political rallies excepted, you won’t see a lot of flags on French people. Take this look:



It says, “Hello. I am a tourist.” Or “I am in French club” (which is great. we <3 you. we want you to buy our book and perhaps one day a much cooler t-shirt) But it does NOT say “Bonjour. Je suis français(e).”

I confess. I once owned a Ralph Lauren jeans jacket with an American flag on the back and wore it in Paris. I went to get my hair cut and the stylist said, “You Americans love to wear your flag. We just don’t do that…[then, perhaps, trying to make sure he still got a tip…] Of course, your flag is a lot more interesting than ours.”  —Damn straight, french fry!, I responded, y’all are just a bunch of surrender monkeys.

Kidding. I actually realized that it must seem strange that a foreigner living in your country would label themselves with their flag. I mean, what is that? Sartorial imperialism? A handy time-saver for pickpockets?

For me, seeing a French flag on the cover of a French grammar book means one or more of the following:

  1. The designer thinks you’re stupid. (How will they know it’s French without the flag?)
  2. The designer has assumed that all countries are as in love with their flag as America.
  3. The designer is lazy.
  4. The designer is trying to assuage the fears of right-wing extremists who don’t want foreigners learning their language by telling them that we, too, can adopt their veneration for their flag.
  5. The publishing house has out-sourced all cover design to the youth movement of the Front national.

End of rant.*

*This rant brought to you by the committee for more original textbook design (currently, 2 members).

Impossible is very French, but failure is not an option

Whenever I hear someone say “Impossible n’est pas français!” I want Dwight to come to my defense:



Not only is “impossible” a French word (via Latin, of course), but it is one of the French people’s favorite words.

In the negation chapter of What The French?!  I speculate the Napoleon coined the expression simply to be contrarian. If there’s one thing the French like as much as negating sentences, it’s asserting that things are pas possible. 

Customer service in France can be summed up like this: Non! Ce n’est pas possible. C’est impossible. Impossible. Non. (insert a squirrel-like clicking noise signifying “no” here for complete authenticity.)

English translation of an actual conversation at the shop of famed ice cream maker Berthillon:

Customer: Could we get that in a cup instead of a cone?

Berthillon employee: No.

Customer: But you have cups right there.

Berthillon: No. It’s impossible.

Customer: It’s for our child. He’s only 18 months old. He can’t hold a cone without dropping it.

Berthillon: Sorry, but it’s not possible.

Customer: We can pay for the cup.

Berthillon: Next.

To be fair, there are situations in which the chief reason that French people like to tell you that something is “impossible”is so that they can demonstrate their power to overcome the impossible (the Berthillon incident was not one of those times). In other words, “impossible” is the perfect straw man for the bureaucrat with a God-complex. Nothing is more French than creating impossibilities for the sole purpose of overcoming them.

Impossible, therefore, no matter what Napoleon thought, is decidedly French. Failure, however, is not an option.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of having dinner with designer, Adrien Gardère. Earlier in the day he had given a presentation about some his projects such as his design for the interior displays of the impressive Musée du Louvre-Lens, his work for the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art, his successful lighting and furniture design, and, well, so many amazing projects, that during the Q&A, someone in the packed museum asked him if he could talk about one of his failures. He was stunned—not because he would have been unwilling to talk about failure, but because no one had ever asked the question before. “Only in America,” he said, “is value placed on failure.” In America, people like to talk about how many times you must fail in order to succeed. In France, people don’t talk about failure (at least not their own). In short, failure is not an option. And if it occurs, you certainly don’t celebrate it as part of your narrative of success. The fact that this curious cultural difference was still on his mind five hours later at dinner shows you just how stunning the thought of even asking that question is to a French person. It stunned me as well. I had honestly never thought of the different value that France and America place on the idea of failure.

In America, we can be like Thomas Edison, failing 3,000 times or so before inventing the next big thing, making failure part of the eventual success. In France, instead, you have Napoleon’s famous dictum: Impossible n’est pas français—the perfect example of a mentality that refuses to value failure.

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