Though I’ve never regretted my decision some 45 years ago to come and live in France (I’m enough convinced this must be some kind of record to be willing to offer a bottle of champagne to anyone who can claim more) there are one or two things that still grate. Apart from the taxation levels, the strikes, the street demonstrations, queue-jumping, tail-gating, le système D, and a mentality which enables a people to see nothing wrong with the most radical projects for reform, provided they’re for others, I’ve never really come to terms with a stubborn Gallic insistance that the customer is always wrong. Though I must confess to a certain literary licence, the following incidents are just two of the many that really happened to me.
In a free-market economy a sacrosanct commercial rule states that the supplier should do his best to satisfy the requirements of his customer as obligingly and efficiently as possible, and that the latter’s preferences should always have priority over his own. What is less surprising that in the land of the exception this rule should be subject to individual interpretation? For that yawning gap which exists in France between what should be and what is, was again brought home one Saturday morning when the need to ensure another week’s survival obliged me to pay a visit to my local supermarket.
As the items on my shopping list far exceeded the carrying capacity of a hand-held basket, I made my way to the trolley storage area. Being in possession of neither the one-euro coin nor the plastic substitute counter necessary to unshackle a trolley from its neighbour, I stepped inside. There was nobody at the information desk so I headed towards the nearest checkout where a rather sour-looking lady seemed to be doing her best to let everyone know she was engaged in a job beneath her. Just as she was opening her till, I politely asked if she could let me have a one euro coin for the two fifty cent ones I held in my hand.
‘Ah non!’ she snapped.
‘Mais pourquoi, madame?’ I enquired.
‘Because I need all the change I’ve got!’
Mustering all my self-control, I appealed to the lady to reconsider her decision by pointing out that, since I was a customer, and a regular one at that, she might think about placing my requirements before her own. It fell as seed on desert ground. In a final attempt to kindle a spark of commercial awareness, I proceeded to point to the banner hanging just above our heads, proclaiming in bold capital letters that CHEZ NOUS LE CLIENT EST ROI, ‘Here The Customer Is King’. Her shoulders projected themselves upwards while her lower lip stretched itself downwards in what is commonly termed ‘a Gallic shrug’. I could muzzle the bulldog in me no longer. Abandoning all restraint, I angrily declared that if I was not the recipient of the required coin within the next ten seconds, the arguments I had presented would be brought directly to the ears of her boss. It was with undisguised bad grace that she complied.
After finally unshackling my trolley, I got down to the business of shopping. Having a typically English sweet tooth, I made straight for the biscuit shelves where a young lady was engaged in erecting a tall pyramid-like structure – presumably as part of a promotional display – composed of packets of the chocolate-coated biscuits I’m especially partial to. Bringing my trolley to a halt next to her, I was just about to grab a couple when she called out in a tone of barely-concealed irritation, ‘Mind you don’t knock them all down. You know, it won’t be me who’ll put ’em all back up again!’
It was my Frenchman who got me to bite my tongue by whispering that après tout she was only doing her job, and that it would be better if I got out of her way; and since it was Saturday why didn’t I treat myself to some delicious mountain-cured ham as a starter for dinner that evening? It would go down well with a glass or two of light, dry Riesling. So off I took myself to the cooked meat counter.
Now the charcuterie counter at my local supermarket displays a mouth-watering variety of cooked meats: jambons, pâtés, pâtés en croûte, saucissons, terrines and saucisses, to name just a few. It could only have been my Frenchie who slyly whispered in my ear that the young girl assistant was just as mouthwatering as the wares she was serving. But when I requested half a dozen slices of my ham, cut thin, she gave a shake of her pretty little head, and with a charming smile proceeded to ask if I would do her a favour. Could I possibly accept the same … in pre-packed form? She’d just spent a quarter of an hour stripping and cleaning the cutting machine and didn’t want to have to begin again. It was certainly my English half who prompted me to enquire whether the supermarket closing time was seven o’clock or a quarter to.
‘Oui, vous avez raison, Monsieur,’ she replied with an even sweeter smile, ‘mais, vous voyez, I’m meeting my boyfriend at half past seven. Since I need at least half an hour to get home and change, I cleaned the machine in advance so I can leave dead on seven. I’m sure you’ll understand!’ I meekly settled for a wedge of modest pâté de campagne which she cut with a carving knife.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still extremely fond of France and the French and I’d be heart-broken if ever we had to part. What’s more, in the final analysis the good things about living here far outweigh the bad. And I’ve even managed to convince myself that the downsides are part of the overall charm.