Opération Sourire
(the French Smile)

The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1965

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A nationwide contest to promote tourist goodwill in France, 1965.


IN FRANCE it is open season on tourists again. French prices are standing on tiptoe in anticipation. Traffic jams are creating unprecedented fits of pique. Waiters are trying out such English tongue­twisters as ''The service is not included, sir." For weeks now, perhaps on direct orders from Général de Gaulle, the horse chestnut blossoms along the Champs-Elysées have been standing at full attention.  And, naturally, American journalists in Paris are springing jauntily to their portables to churn out seasonal prose cheerfully knocking French plumbing and French lack of politeness.

All this, to anyone who has lived any time at all in France, is as predictable as chalky Camembert and 14th of July fireworks.  But this year the charming old charade is being conducted against a fantastic emotional crossruff created by political recriminations at the United States (largely generated by Général De Gaulle) and a frenetic and by now famous French publicity campaign to coddle American and other tourists and so restore a slipping France to her former grandeur as a tourist trap.

In theory the two aims are consistent - for the United States can be hamstrung by draining off its dollars as well as by bedeviling its diplomacy, but in practice a certain confusion sets in. The balefully comic evidences are everywhere. The official Government handout for the campaign of "Welcome and Amiability" ("Accueil et Amabilité") speaks headily of reviving the French tradition of politesse.

With his unfailing eye for detail, de Gaulle commands French scientists at International conferences not to backslide into English while his tourist bureau urgently counsels French hotel keepers to have more waiters - who speak English. The effect of all this on Frenchmen was summed up for me the other day by a Paris taxi driver (not the old-fashioned kind, all of whom seem to have served on the cruiser Potemkin, but one of the new breed, a young woman sporting a sprig of violets). Said she, savagely exercising her priorité à droite over a hapless civilian driver next to her: ''If de Gaulle wants us to be so nice to the Américains, why doesn't he try it himself?"

The kind of mixed welcome such contradictory strains in French policy can produce for tourists was evident in two incidents which took place recently in widely separate parts of France.

At Orly Airport, with much folderol, three unsuspecting Anglo-saxon tourists suddenly found themselves bundled off the plane and treated to champagne and a garland of Gallic grins by no less a personage than French state Secretary Pierre Dumas, who is in charge of the amiability campaign. Like the millions of tourists who are expected to follow them to France this year, the three were offered a symbolic French rose, a phial of perfume and a personal "smile checkbook" (full of chèques sourire) out of which, during their stay in France, they are expected to write pink checks to the Frenchmen who seem most amiable to them.  (This is the big gimmick of the campaign. Lest there be any hanky­panky, however, a footnote in the instructions sternly warns tourists that they may give only one check per Frenchman or Frenchwoman, ''no matter how amiable they have been.")

Alas, at about the same time as the French campaign of welcome was thus officially being opened in Paris, a gaggle of touring United States schoolboys in the village of Obernai near Strasbourg decided to take an unauthorized dip in the not yet officially opened municipal pool. Before this infraction of domestic order was checked, local police had fired over their heads, a couple of boys had been marched off to the local jail, and the mayor of Obernai had roundly observed that "Americans are under­educated bums who should not go around behaving as if they were in Vietnam and Santo Domingo." He then added briskly that he, for one, was not going to stand by and "let France be colonized by America."

Général de Gaulle's notion of what French grandeur requires goes back to King Clovis, and before. France's ''Welcome and Amiability" campaign goes back only to last fall. Along about Calvados-brewing time, Frenchmen were also served up a bitter draft of statistics. Tourism, which once had brought in about $200 million a year, was expected, by 1965, to produce an annual loss of $100 million, a result of the difference between what foreigners bring into the country and what French nationals spend abroad. Tourists in Europe who once stayed an average of 8 1/2 days in France, now stay 36 hours. Worst of all, Frenchmen, whose ethnocentricity had for generations kept them home during vacations (anything outside France, after all, was hardly worth seeing) had started deserting to Italy and Spain. Four million French, for instance, went to Spain last summer.

Le Grand Palais seen from across the Seine.
All sketches by Timothy Foote.

Le Grand Palais seen from the window of my office on Avenue Matignon in 1965.

The major causes of this catastrophe were tolerably clear. On the whole nobody, except possibly the Government, could be blamed. Years of inflation, as well as an exploding consumer economy, have combined to keep France (after the U. S.) the most expensive country in the world. French taxes, on hotel and restaurant owners among others, are ferocious. As a result, an average day in a good French hotel, though slightly less expensive than in the U. S., costs about twice as much as comparable accommodations in Spain, a third again as much as in Italy. The French economic revolution, moreover, has created whole classes of people who for the first time have cash enough to travel abroad, and sense enough to go where they can get more fun for their franc.

Perhaps because Frenchmen have neither the tragedy of the Algerian war nor the comic doings in the National Assembly to absorb them nowadays, these findings produced a kind of national scandal. In a wave of most uncharacteristic self-criticism, all the real and imagined secondary causes of the tourist slump were dredged up. Headlines howled for improvements in lodgings and cleanliness. ("A bas l'hôtellerie de grand-papa!") Agonizing revelations - which surprised nobody - followed one upon another. France was cruelly short of superhighways. She was all but bankrupt in sporting boats (90,000 as against 3.9 million for Britain, 9 million in the U. S.). She was fresh out of motels, heated swimming pools, fishing ports and, above all, simple courtesy.

If this was traumatic for the French, it was triste indeed for Americans who know France and happen to be fond of the place and the people pretty much as they are. For us, one of the most attractive French qualities is precisely that, except for the special breed of snobbish and coldly smiling salesgirls in a few fancy shops, the French are intractable and slow to put themselves out for tourists or for anybody else.


Rudely stated, the refreshing French view, at least until recently, has been that if God and history have spent some 1,600 years making France one of the richest and most fascinating places on earth (which it emphatically is), tourists coming through for a few weeks should take it as they find it or briskly go elsewhere. A healthy French reaction to the fact that so many have gone elsewhere would have been tant pis pour eux. But here they were, full of Madison Avenue chatter about "smile checks," publicity campaigns and the need to reform their "image."'

Much of what has become part of the be-kind-to­tourists program makes sense - and probably would have been done anyway. André Malraux has gone on refurbishing chateaux. Directives have gone out increasing the ratio of rooms with bathrooms to rooms without in hotels now being constructed. The Government has sensibly urged that restaurants, no matter bow high their à la carte prices go, offer a reasonably priced prix fixe meal.

Some projects are desirable but unenforceable. (One overambitious governmental cleanup order forbids French housewives to shake mops out the window.) A few rulings, apparently brilliant, may bring disaster. The best example is a rule that tourists' automobiles will not be ticketed by the police in downtown Paris. Restraining the police is all very well. But who is going to restrain that harassed Frenchman who lives downtown and now spends most of his day desperately switching his deux-chevaux from spot to spot every two hours when, for two weeks in a row, he finds two parking places blocked by the same fat Cadillac or Mercedes? What he does may set acceuil et amiabilité back two generations.

With more bathrooms, more information centers, more multilingual hostesses (hôtesses d'accueil polyglottes) at airports and train stations, the arriving tourist is doing better with amenities this year than ever before. As to French amiability, dealt with in what the Government likes to call the "psychological" part of its campaign, that is about as before.  Government brochures babble on about pretty customs houses repainted and set about with flowers all tended by a new breed of eternally smiling and totally uninquisitive customs men - who will, presumably, wave the foreigner toting a satchel full of heroin through as graciously as the veriest innocent matron from Scarsdale.

The pink "smile check books" and an "amiabillty competition" for hotelkeepers who get the most white tickets from satisfied guests are officially expected to reform French manners overnight because there are big cash prizes - among them an all ­expenses-paid trip to Tahiti. But the average French hotel­keeper needs a trip to Tahiti about as much as the average Boston librarian needs a weekend in Tijuana.  And if a Frenchman exists who will smile in hopes of getting a pink "smile check," I for one would hate to meet him - or bask in the full warmth of his smile.

Others are likely to feel the same or, worse, to question the sincerity of all future signs of French kindliness. A Parisian friend reports enjoying a perfect lunch recently with an English tourist - perfect, that is, until the guest, having remarked the amiable service, whispered conspiratorially: "Do you suppose they're doing it to get my smile check?"

La Place de la Concorde from Rue Boissy d'Anglas.  Crillon at left.  Wall of US Embassy at right.  Le Palais Bourbon (L'Assemblée Nationale) in the distance.

In Paris the old skirmish between Frenchmen, alternately maddening and charming, and American tourists, alternately charmed and maddened, goes on pretty much as it did in pre-campaign days. As usual, the natives have every advantage.

Americans, mainly monolingual and possessed of an unlimited capacity for feeling wounded and cheated, have only limited means of wounding in return. They can go elsewhere. (They have). To throw the enemy off balance, they can also order outrageous food - like a real breakfast for instance, or, in one truly inspired case, steak with chocolate sauce. They can and do act as if all Frenchmen are thieves and all French currency somewhat less reliable than Confederate dollars.

The portly matron who offers a $20 traveler's check for $18.63 worth of perfume at Michel Swiss and then refuses francs as change (''Why are you cheating me? I want dollars, of course") may think she is defending herself. In fact, she is jolting French patience and amour-propre abominably.


The Time-Life offices were rented from the Morgan Bank.  To the left of that is the Hotel Crillon.

What Americans often take for personal insult or plain French orneriness is simply a habitual briskness of manner. But Frenchmen, this year as always, are masters of a whole gamut of rudeness, from a needle of irony to a flat-footed insult. To this the Paris scene offers a few special refinements.

At one Montmartre nightclub, one of the principal acts presents a series of jokes about American habits of board and boudoir - the cream of the jest being that Americans in the audience who don't know French feel uncomfortable because they do know they are being laughed at, and Americans who know French have the choice of pretending they don't understand, laughing traitorously, or leaving with or without huff.

In many restaurants Americans are herded together into a sort of Anglo-Saxon amen corner from which they can watch the French clientele dining in Continental style.  Admittedly, this may often be done so the few waiters who know English can handle the traffic.  But it is true that the Julliard guide to Paris carefully tips French readers about the présence Américaine.  "The Americans," an entry for Allard on Rue Saint-André-des-Arts darkly reports "have recently discovered this tiny restaurant."

Additionally, a double-reverse official needle was recently jabbed into the American hide by a French tourist pamphlet, thoughtfully put out for Canadian tourists, carefully explaining how they should act so as not to be taken for Americans.

All this is pure provocation, on the whole fairly rare.  But this year, despite French attempts at improvement, a lot of the same old things, both machinery and local customs, are inadvertently causing as much ill will as ever, either because they do not work are are misunderstood.  For instance:

1) Paris taxicabs.  About half as expensive as in New York or London, taxis here are one of the few exceptions to the exorbitant price rule in France.  (Others include steaks and small sailboats - both about twice as good and half as costly as in the U.S. - and leather gloves.)  Paradoxically, it is the low cost of taxis that causes the fuss, since cab drivers, justifiably feel discriminated against by price rulings and sometimes take it out on the customers.

The trouble begins at Orly where an arriving visitor staggers out of the terminal and finds - no taxis.  (They are hidden in a parking lot, summonable only by pushing a button, a "taxi-call" meter.)  Failing to do this, the tourist is likely to be taken into camp by a hire-car man and have to pay an outrageously fat flat rate for the ride to Paris.  Taxis also hate to make the trip from Paris to Orly.  A wise Parisian therefore hides his luggage behind a tree or something until he has collared a cab and only then announces his destination.

Finally, of course, there are long hours of the day when no cab will stop to pick up anyone - the only way to get service is to have a long list of "radio taxi" phone numbers.  Taxis treat Frenchmen and foreigners with equal contempt.  But a desperate tourist who has been ignored by 20 cruising cabs as the minutes to plane time tick away is most unlikely to believe it.

2)  Old francs for new.  Frenchmen spent too long with their money exactly 100 times less valuable than it is now to be really sure of the new system or to be very quick at quoting prices in it.  The results of their honest confusion (and the suspicion of an equally confused tourist) can be devastating.

A bachelor friend of mine recently was approached by a very pretty girl who asked for "50 francs ($10) to make a phone call."  Thinking this one of the most attractive ploys for the half century, he was just reaching for his wallet with high expectations when, to his chagrin, the girl burst out: "I'm sorry, Monsieur, I meant 50 centimes" - which is just what the old 50-franc piece is worth today, and exactly the price of a telephone slug!

Similar slips are not always so cheerful.  The lady from Lake Forest who finds a fantastic inlaid table at the Flea Market for the unheard-of price of $60, only to discover after much chatter about old and new francs that it really costs $600, will never again believe that the French are not a nation of frauds and bandits.

3)  French helpfulness.  It exists, but to benefit by it you have to know that it is just the reverse of American helpfulness.  Americans, brought up in a society where things work and it is natural to assume that difficulties can be easily surmounted, lend a hand gladly.  But if the situations gets really impossible, they are inclined to give up - at least to turn the problem over to some institution designed to take care of such things.

For years Frenchmen inhabited an entirely different world, where sauve qui peut became a national philosophy and the one thing you could be sure of was that nothing, least of all any public institution, was going to work.  To routine appeals for routine help they turn a deaf ear.  The way to get a Frenchman to help you is to persuade him that your problem is unbelievably complex or, better still, unsolvable.

A Frenchman intrigued by a really hopeless difficulty is a man inspired.  Two months ago, for instance, I turned up in Arles at 11 o'clock at night with three tired, dirty children and an outraged wife - but without a hotel reservation.  It was out of season so I expected no trouble.  But it turned out that Arles was having a round of bullfights.

St. Rémy, where the cafe owner finally found beds for the stranded Foote family in a hotel not yet officially opened for business.  The aforementioned hotel is at the left.

Since my predicament was the result of pure folly on my part, I was not surprised when the clerks in the hotels I tried replied to my requests for suggestions as to where I could find some place to sleep by shrugging and looking me over as if I'd just crawled out from under a wet stone. (The French like people who know what they're doing and are actively irritated by people who don't.)

The proprietor of the bistro we repaired to for some steak and red wine was equally unmoved, though he did growl that I could get a hotel by driving three hours back to Marseilles where I had come from. Following Rule 1 in France (if you get mad you are lost) I borrowed the phone at the bar and began calling hotels in Nimes, Les Baux and Avignon.

After my seventh turndown, my host began to warm up to the project. He had a caucus with the barman and a semi-clochard who appeared to be holding up the bar. He visibly racked his brain. He snatched the phone from my hand and began calling. Half an hour later he found a hotel in a tiny town 20 miles away which had not yet opened for the season. He got the owner out of bed to talk and harangued him for 10 minutes until he agreed to take us - he had to be intrigued by our plight, too. We were saved.

Was it helpfulness or the challenge of the thing? Both. perhaps. The point is, once engaged, he was going to get us lodging for the night if he had to swing hammocks over the bar.

One effect of France's amiability campaign has been to blow out of all proportion both French rudeness and the umbrage tourists are supposed to take at it. When friction does come, it is obviously due more to differences in national style and temperament than to anything that can be corrected by building bathrooms, handing out smile checks, or issuing "amiability" stamps.

The French, take them or leave them, are a hard, formal, fast-spoken people used to living on themselves. Americans, especially overseas, tend to be soft, informal, slow of speech and unable to bear any signs of disapproval.  Still, it does not help monolingual tourists much to know that the French are rude to one another, or that their rudeness is often a kind of can­you-top-this duel which can be amicably concluded either by a show of wit or by another, and more outrageous, round of rudeness.

The French approach is brusque and often starts with what might be called "the instinctive negative." You sit down at a sidewalk cafe. You order an omelette. The waiter is likely to reply, snappishly, "Omelettes are not served outside." He looks at you challengingly. If you lose your temper, omelettes will indeed not be served outside. If you say something funny. or something rueful, you will not only get an omelette but almost anything else imaginable.

Ironically, if the French campaign to sell French smiles for a trip to Tahiti, all the upbeat slogans about friendliness, and the nonsense about flower-bedecked customs houses will do little to change French character or help U. S. tourists this year. They are all nevertheless, symptoms of the galloping Americanization of Europe which may one day eliminate one of the main causes of U. S. tourist misery - the feeling of being utterly conspicuous, alien and helpless.

The process is going on at a faster pace even than Frenchmen imagine or the generalizations of the world press can announce. Ten years ago when I first came here, carrots for the first time were marketed in plastic bags. The next year refrigerators in pastel "decorator" colors bloomed vainly in a few appliance stores. Even four years ago American-style clothes made a man stand out like a polar bear on a life raft.

Now the U.S. suit and button-down shirt have taken over, at least for people under 40. Last winter I stood in a theater lobby with a French and an Austrian friend and agreed that the only person we could be sure was an American was the little old lady with the blue-tinted hair and harlequin glasses, wearing a Hawaiian lei around her neck. (Significantly, only the last item clinched the identification.)

Cloverleafs are proliferating concretely in the suburbs. Whole cities, complete with drugstore and supermarket, are popping up all around France. The green round hills of the Riviera east of Saint­Tropez are being girdled by roads and the roads dotted by hundreds of pre-fab vacation houses. The small, moon­shaped beaches nearby have hotels and apartments jamming up behind them until they look like miniatures of Rio's Copacabana.

Slogans have set in. This year it was "Ne nous fâchons pas." ("Let's not get angry") and "Priorité au Sourire" ("Right-of-way to smiles"), both calculated to improve traffic. Tiger tails have become the new national decoration of France - though "Mettez un tigre dans votre moteur" lacks the zing of "Put a tiger in your tank."

This is progress. It may eventually keep French tourists at home. But neither it, nor any amount of pasteurized good will, is likely to charm foreigners like the France of today and yesterday. The day may come when perfectly housed, flawlessly served tourists will nostalgically prowl this country in search of an old-fashioned curmudgeonly French concierge or a surly Paris waiter to sneer them on their way.

Below, one French comment which appeared in the periodical, Candide.