Monday, 7 January 2013

La Politesse à Paris

When you think of Parisians on public transport, friendliness and impeccable manners are not always the first thing that come to mind. Passengers push their way on to trains, put their feet on the seats and avoid all eye contact (and that's when they're not being outright abusive - right Ella Coquine?), while often you have more chance of getting a smile from the automated ticket machines than the human personnel behind the bullet-proof glass.*

My trip back from the airport the other day started out as no exception. I dragged my luggage through the blink-and-you-miss-it gates, heaved my suitcase down the unforgiving stares, took my place on the train and didn't even look up as two men took the seats beside me.

Then the ticket inspectors got on. Working in pairs, they made their way down the carriage, checking the stamps on everyone's tickets and zapping the Navigo passes with their little machines. Unfortunately, the guy next to me had a ticket that had been stamped before 7am that morning (a good ten hours beforehand) while his mate's Navigo pass hadn't been charged since the new year.

The inspectors explained that the fine would be 45 euros.

The first man, fumbling in his wallet, asked what would happen if he didn't pay.

Then, said the inspectors, they would ask for ID and the amount would go up to 75 euros.

But you can't make us give you ID, stated one of the men.

No, said the ticket inspectors, but they would call the police, who would escort the men from the train at the next station.

Yes, they said, Mr Invalid Ticket could indeed pay the fine with his carte bleue.

This reminded him, he explained (in a subtle show of bravado) why he stopped using public transport and normally takes his car these days.

Merci, monsieur, they said, giving him his receipt and moving off down the corridor, quietly requesting that another passenger remove his feet from the seats opposite him (which he promptly did) as they went.

Nothing exceptional in all of this, you might think, but what was impressive was the tone in which the whole conversation was carried out. Everyone vouvoie-d everyone else. Nobody raised their voice. Never was there an angry glance or a conflictual stare. Instead, most of the talking was done by the young-ish female inspector, in a quiet, feminine voice accompanied by a winning smile.

I think there might be a lesson in dealing with difficult people for all of us there. And if you want a smile on the Paris metro, try not paying for your ticket. It might be worth the 45 euro fine.

*I make an exception, of course, for the man who once re-validated my ticket when I accidentally exited the metro and gave me a "Happy Christmas" sticker at the same time.


  1. I love the way French can be rude to each other and speak with disdain while still using "vous". It's both classy and slightly disturbing!

  2. I've never seen them inspecting on the train before (not that I'm in Paris all the time). Gotta admit, it's quite tempting not to pay when you have a suitcase! My very first trip to Paris, they let me back in as well after I somehow went in and then out the gates in about 2 seconds. I think it was just to get me to stop spouting incomprehensible French at them.

  3. Zhu, I know - I love it too! This exchange was even more fun though, because as well as being polite they were also being friendly ... Except they totally weren't:-)

    Gwan, they usually inspect more at the barriers than on the train, but I've noticed there are more inspections in January and September. It's as if they make new year resolutions or something!