Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 6 February 2010

In Paris, the customer is not always right

The idea of service is taken very seriously in France where any feeling of subservience is strongly resisted, as Emma Jane Kirby discovered.

French grocery store in 1935
Parisian workers traditionally regard themselves as the customer's equal

Paris is in a bad mood.

The sullen, steel-grey sky seems to be permanently snivelling sleet.

The Seine, swollen against its banks, pushes and squeezes its way through the city like an irascible woman in too-tight shoes.

And the January depression has even sucked some of the glitzy dazzle out of the Eiffel Tower, leaving it looking - at least from a distance - like a rather cheap, left-over Christmas decoration.

It may be the city of romance and a mecca for tourists, but right now Paris feels and looks like it just cannot be bothered any more to turn on the charm.

Not that this city is exactly known for its sense of service.

The customer is allegedly always right in London but, in Paris, he or she is little more than an irritant.

Cab 'service'

A couple of months back, I broke my leg in a skiing accident and became completely reliant on Paris's taxi service.

Taxi in Paris street

Under the circumstances, even though I was paying for this ride, I felt unable to ask this clearly sensitive man to turn down his deafening rap music

Wobbling precariously on my crutches after a family dinner in a local restaurant, I hailed the first cab in the rank.

He drove up, glanced at my plastered leg and drove straight off again shouting: "I don't take cripples. Your crutches might damage my paintwork!"

Somewhat stupefied, I hailed the next cab in line and politely asked the driver if I could sit up front as it was easier for my leg.

"I'm not arranging my whole damn cab to accommodate you," he snapped. "I've got all my personal things piled on the front seat!"

As he drove off at an angry speed, I got a glance of the front passenger seat and saw it was adorned with one folded newspaper.

The taxi driver who finally chauffeured me home was pleasant enough, although a stark notice on the back of the seat reminded me that it would not be wise to push my luck.

"Do not use your mobile phone in this cab," warned the hand-written sticker, "it annoys your driver."

Under the circumstances, even though I was paying for this ride, I felt unable to ask this clearly sensitive man to turn down his deafening rap music.

'I'm not your slave'

The fact is Parisians employed in any service industry simply do not buy into the Anglo Saxon maxim, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

Waiter in French restaurant
In France your waiter expects to be addressed formally as Monsieur, in exactly the same way he will address you

The revolution of 1789 has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.

This Sunday, a Parisian friend of mine waited in line at the fruit and vegetable stall of his local market.

When it was his turn to be served, he asked the seller for a kilo of leeks.

"They're at the other end of the stall," snapped the vendor waspishly. "Take a bit of exercise and get them yourself."

There is no mistaking the undertone, "I'm not your slave."

At my doctor's, the two dour receptionists are quite delightful when we meet on the street, sharing jokes and asking kindly after my broken leg.

Back behind their desk, however, they brood and scowl. There is not even a gesture of recognition, let alone a friendly smile.

On the street it is acknowledged that we are equals but, once back in the surgery - in that uncomfortable position of service provider and client - the receptionists become wary of a potential shift of power and are quick to squash any assumptions of superiority.

Blunt honesty

In America, your waiter comes to your restaurant table to tell you his name is Joe. Here, your waiter expects to be addressed formally as Monsieur, in exactly the same way he will address you.

It is made clear from the start that no-one has the upper hand. The strict code of manners in Paris is a deliberate class-leveller.

'Don't even think about it,' said the shop assistant bluntly, 'not with that big fat leg'

Perhaps Parisians are just being honest.

Our American waiter Joe, after all, only promises to give us "good folks a great time" because he wants a terrific tip but, in Paris, providing quality is a matter of personal pride.

In the boulangerie next to our office, the baker spends a good 90 seconds skilfully wrapping up my plain brioche into an artistic cornet, even though she must know I will rip it open the second I leave her shop.

When I ask the local greengrocer for an avocado, he asks when I plan to eat it before dutifully feeling every avocado in the box to find the one which will be perfectly ripe on that day.

Last week, as I waited in the damp gloom for a taxi to take me home after yet another hospital appointment, I decided to shelter in the expensive dress shop next door.

I held up a woollen dress against me and admired myself in the mirror.

The shop assistant, nonchalantly blowing bubble-gum bubbles, looked narrowly at me and shook her head.

"Don't even think about it," she said bluntly, "not with that big fat leg."

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12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

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