Detested by all, yet the French give us The Last Croissant In Paris

It's now the most visited country in the world but, asks John Lichfield, do the natives really find tourists so unpalatable?

"Great Debate in the British Press," said the headline in Le Figaro. "Are the French Detestable?"

The Daily Mail sent a reporter to find out. He discovered the French were appalling. Was there any chance that the Mail might have reached the opposite conclusion?

The great debate has been raging for three weeks (or, if you insist, for over 900 years). It started with a survey of tourists by the Paris Chamber of Commerce, which concluded that many foreign visitors, and not just the British, regarded France as a wonderful country, scarred by the fact that it was inhabited by the French.

The British found the natives arrogant, rude and disorganised; the Germans thought they were arrogant, rude and unwashed. And so on.

This was cheered in the British tabloid press as an own goal: that is, the French are so insufferable that they are forced to admit it themselves. In truth, the report pointed to something else: the French, or some of the French, are aware they climb (one way or another) up the nasal cavities of foreign visitors and they are trying to do something about it.

In my experience, the French, especially younger generations of French people, are not quite so implacably and splendidly rude to foreigners as they used to be.

The second salvo of cross-Channel bile was fired by the small Cotswolds town of Stow-in-the-Wold, which might now, perhaps, consider changing its name to Stuck-in-the-Mud. Its parish council rejected a plan to twin with a French town, citing grievances ranging from the mad cow dispute to the Hundred Years War. Twinning, if it has any purpose at all, is intended to overcome dotty and vacuous prejudices of this kind: Stow preferred to cherish its prejudices.

The French were rather wounded by this rejection. They knew the British liked to make fun of them but did not suspect such outright hostility existed. Some of the post-Stow commentary in the French press was also over the top; it failed to point out that scores of British towns and villages are contentedly twinned with similar places in France and, in some cases, dissimilar places.

What, for instance, does Bolton have in common with Le Mans? And yet the towns have been happily twinned for more than 20 years. (I did try to check how many French towns and villages are twinned with British ones; but this is August. The only person at the French twinning association, Cites Unies, who knew how to work the computer was away on holiday.)

Julian Barnes, the francophile British novelist, attempted this week to place the disorganised-detestable-French debate in perspective. In an open letter to the people of France, published in Le Figaro, he told them, in effect: yes, you are awful but that's what makes you French and you mustn't change. We would hate that even more.

He summed up: "Your historic role in Europe, especially for the British, is to embody Otherness ... Don't wash just to please the Germans. Don't organise yourselves better just to please the British. Do you see that pavement? Let your dog do its business on it without hesitation. It's your patriotic duty."

There is a rich paradox here. France is already the most visited country in the world. The decline of the franc means France is likely to break all records for receiving foreigners this year: well over 60 million, including 10 million from Britain.

Not only do many of these visitors say they dislike the French; many of the French say they dislike the visitors. As the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine commented, turning the conclusion of the Parisian visitor survey on its head: "The French like tourism but not tourists."

They are hardly alone in this. But, as I tried to explain once before (only to be accused of French-bashing), there is a particular difficulty for the French in getting on with foreigners because they don't readily, on a casual basis, get on with one another. Chumminess is not a French talent.

More precisely, France operates on the basis of familiarity and established groups of relatives, friends and clients. If you are a stranger, whether foreign or otherwise, you should expect the minimum service and maximum charge. Once you become an established member of a community, however informal, everything changes.

I go to the same cafe every morning to read the French newspapers. Madame, the patronne, is fearsomely rude to foreign tourists who show the slightest hesitation in giving their order. But she brings my usual coffee and croissant with a smile. This week, with half of Paris closed down, she was unable to secure croissants from her usual suppliers.

On Monday, she apologised, almost tearfully: I could have no croissant with my coffee. By Tuesday, she had located an alternative source. There were no croissants displayed on the counter. They were too precious to offer to the public. But she came to me furtively and triumphantly with a croissant on a small white plate and said: "Look, I managed to get you one ..."

I sat staring out at the deserted boulevard, chomping proudly what might have been - Marlon Brando eat your heart out - The Last Croissant in Paris.

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