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You’re welcome...when I’m ready

She represents the values of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and Marianne is the symbolic figure of the French Republic. But she also gives her name to a little-known civil service guide, Le Référentiel Marianne.  

From La Mairie and La Préfecture to the tax centre and La Poste, this charter aims to guarantee easy access to effective public services with a friendly, attentive welcome.

The State clearly realises improvements are needed and they seem to be happening.

Anonymous visits to test services are carried out under the charter every year and the 2018 results show a rise in satisfaction (6.7/10 scoring, as opposed to 6.4/10 for 2017).

But it does often feel there is a long way to go...

The most evident point is that many civil servants in the services we all visit at some point have developed an aversion to greeting that can catch foreigners off-guard.

You might as well be invisible as they perfect the art of forcing themselves not to see you, or at least not until they’re ready.

Chatting to a colleague or finishing a task usually takes priority before a vague, sometimes mildly annoyed acknowledgement of your presence.

As outsiders, we read the message as: “I’m very busy with important things to do, I’d much prefer it if you hadn’t come.”  

And it’s not just the public services where welcoming visitors seems to be a challenge.

In supermarkets and larger stores, staff will sometimes go out of their way to avoid getting in yours. After all, you might ask a question or, worse, want to buy something which might involve them.

At the supermarket checkout you’ll get a half-hearted “b’jour” but woe betide you if you forget to weigh your carrots, and a lot of huffing and puffing can break out if a barcode doesn’t work, leaving you feeling awkward.  

But are we reading these situations correctly?

The French are really good at being frank and what we’re experiencing here are unfiltered reactions and undisguised false enthusiasm.

This may be an Anglo-Saxon over-sensitiveness to customer service, but you won’t hear an “excusez- moi” or “je suis désolé” from anyone unless they mean it, not being a standard form of politeness as it is in English.

But here’s the flip-side.

If ever there is a connection, such as knowing someone personally, living in the same village or having a mutual acquaintance, you’ll more often find the French are genuinely warm and exceptionally helpful.

Here you’ll witness another extreme – the long-windedly ultra-personal service.

Especially at local businesses, such as la boulangerie, you’re likely to have detailed conversations about the children’s progress at school, problems at work and the health concerns of ageing relatives, while others wait patiently to be served. 

Such is the variety and daily interest of living in France, and perhaps we can learn a thing or two from it.

By getting in touch with our inner Marianne, and showing interest and emotion as we feel it, we might find it liberating to be more direct and not pandering so much to the sensibilities of others.

At the same time, we’d take a step closer to understanding the real essence of what it is to be French. Then we’d really start fitting in.

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