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Stressed Parisians cast off civility

AFP-JIJI

The “City of Light” may draw more tourists than most world capitals, but Paris doesn’t sparkle for the legions of visitors shocked to find its residents can be rude, brusque and snobbish.

The first glimpse many get of Paris, the Charles de Gaulle international airport, was ranked the world’s worst on a CNN blog in 2011, which complained of a warrenlike layout, grimy washrooms and above all “dismissive staff.”

One traveler complained, “Waiting for a connection here is like being in custody.”

Not only are Parisians contemptuous of travelers to their town, they also behave badly toward each other, the reputation goes, and waiters treat patrons like dirt.

A Japanese psychiatrist practising in Paris for three decades has even identified what he calls “a Paris syndrome” among compatriots new to a city that is synonymous in their minds with elegance and refinement.

“They arrive with an image out of sync with reality,” said the doctor, who asked not to be named. “They never expected a ‘welcome’ that is so aggressive and indifferent. They experience fear and symptoms of anxiety.”

In the latest attempt by the city to persuade locals to mind their manners, Paris’ public transport authorities have launched a tongue-in-cheek poster campaign on the SNCF rail and RATP bus and metro networks, featuring pushy animals. One shows a hen squawking into a mobile phone in a crowded bus, one a buffalo barging into a train, another a messy warthog leaving snacks and trash on the next seat.

“This is a very French problem,” said SNCF head Guillaume Pepy, who says the issue extends beyond the capital.

He said the SNCF will recruit 100 “mediators” to remind passengers “that no, you do not smoke on trains; no, you do not put your feet up on the seat opposite you, and no, you do not destroy the fittings, because they belong to the public.”

An old French term, “incivility,” is increasingly heard in public speech as the euphemism for plain old inconsiderate behavior.

The worst, said bus driver Tarik Gouijjane, are passengers on late-night buses. “Spitting and the finger-up sign are common,” he said. “People openly drink alcohol, smoke joints and put their feet on the seats.”

“I don’t know if these campaigns will have any effect, but they’re definitely responding to a need,” said sociologist Dominique Picard, author of a 2007 book on manners and “savoir vivre.”

Paris has not always such an image problem. “When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” famously said Thomas Gold Appleton, a 19th-century Boston wit.

Yet today, “everyone complains that these incivilities are on the rise — and in all social classes,” said Picard.

The newsweekly Marianne blamed Parisians’ perceived boorishness on stress. It said people are under more stress than in other parts of France, faced with longer commutes and working hours in a fast-paced and increasingly overcrowded city, which with its suburbs is home to 11 million people.

Figures released by the RATP bear this out. One study, it said, showed that 97 percent of the dense crowd who use the bus and metro daily had witnessed “incivilities” in the previous month, and a surprising 63 percent admitted having been uncivil to fellow passengers.

The RATP’s response was a campaign encouraging passengers to “exchange a kind smile while commuting.”

Not all are down on Parisians, however. “For years I’ve been denying the French are rude. People simply don’t understand cultural differences,” said American blogger Karen Fawcett on her site, Bonjour Paris.

Traditionally in France, the slightest eye contact — be it in an elevator, a shop or in public transport — draws a “good day” greeting. It is likewise a sacrosanct prefix before any inquiry — something about which tourists are not necessarily aware of.

“Parisians tend to be like people who live and work in Manhattan and don’t necessarily make nice-nice to strangers,” Fawcett wrote. “It’s their responsibility to learn about French culture and mores, before making grand pronouncements that they’re not well treated as soon as they land on Gallic soil.”

Others find their own way to encourage manners, such as cafe owner Patrick Laubignant in the southwestern town of Marciac, which hosts a well-known summer jazz festival. This year, he has imposed an “impolite” tax. The ubiquitous espresso, for which he charges €1.80 ($2.30), rises to €2 if customers forget to say “please.”