Pardon your French: Chinese tourists and a clash of cultures in Paris

As Paris becomes a hot spot for Chinese tourism, cultural tensions arise between tourists and locals.

Paris, France – In the centre of Paris, on Rue de Provence, sits the bar and restaurant Stan & Co. It’s a dimly lit, homely French bistro with wooden ceilings and stained glass panelling. Waiters are busy serving croques monsieurs and cups of café au lait to tables tucked in cosy bay windows. 

Stephanie Verret has run the place for 25 years. But it’s only in the past few that Rue de Provence has started to change. “All the people in the street sold their businesses to Chinese,” she says. “Before it was like a little village with people taking coffee and croissants in the morning.”

Now, lucrative Chinese restaurants and duty-free shops line the street. Crowds of Chinese tourists push down the narrow footpaths, following flag-wielding guides who hustle past each other in a race to get to the front.

Stephanie finds herself daily in a scene that looks more like downtown Beijing than Paris. “They don’t say hello, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak English,” she says, incredulous.

Anyone who’s spent time in France will attest that perhaps the most important word is “Bonjour”. It implies more than a greeting – it’s also a marker of a civilised encounter.

“One woman came in here and spat on the floor,” recounts Stephanie. “I just took a napkin, put it in her hand and said in French: “Take it!”

A group of Chinese tour guides in training at the Arc de Triomphe [Al Jazeera]
A group of Chinese tour guides in training at the Arc de Triomphe [Al Jazeera]

With hundreds of thousands of Chinese travellers now embarking on their first trips abroad, Stephanie’s street is a microcosm of the clash of cultures occurring in many countries. But far from being against the masses of tourists who flock past her restaurant each day, Stephanie is sympathetic.

“It’s not their fault, it’s two different cultures,” she says. “No one is telling them how we live, what our customs are.”

When I went on tour with a Chinese group, I saw that in most cases, she was right. Tour operators had little interest in educating clients about French customs or culture. For them, the Chinese market is a numbers game: the number of people you can get on a bus, the number of places you can visit in as little time as possible.

They don’t make good commission by taking tourists to monuments or museums. On the big tours, those stops are scheduled for 40 minutes at most. And Paris isn’t very accommodating to Chinese visitors. For instance, despite having more than 800,000 Chinese visitors last year, the Musee du Louvre does not have a Mandarin audio guide.

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Fiercely competitive tour prices mean that guides are frantically trying to make their money by taking their clients on forced shopping marches around Paris. I even heard stories about guides paying tour companies to lead groups and recovering their losses through lucrative commissions offered by big department stores on duty-free purchases.

Making money out of Chinese tourists is where the Chinese tour companies speak the same language as the French. Philip Guarino advises luxury brands about the Chinese market. “There are agreements that are made with tour operators in China,” he explains. “A second agreement with the outgoing travel agency. A third with the inbound French travel agency. A fourth agreement with the local tour guide and a fifth even with the bus driver. We’re talking hundreds of millions.”

According to Philip, Chinese shoppers now account for up to half of luxury brand sales worldwide. Eighty-five percent of those purchases are made in Europe or the US. It’s no wonder that the French government wants to double the number of Chinese tourists it receives to five million a year.

Xia Deyan and his family have just one hour to see the huge Musee du Louvre [Al Jazeera]
Xia Deyan and his family have just one hour to see the huge Musee du Louvre [Al Jazeera]

Just down the road from Stephanie’s restaurant, the department store Galeries Lafayette welcomes hundreds of tour buses daily at a dedicated entrance for Chinese shoppers. Parisians tend to shun the tourist crowds, so this serves as both a way to get the tourists inside more quickly and to keep them in an area with dedicated Mandarin-speaking shop assistants.

It’s chaotic inside the store, especially near closing time, when guides rush their charges in the door. Chinese shoppers can be seen pushing to get to the front of the queue for a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Stephanie is trying to do her bit to make things easier for herself and the Chinese tourists who wander out of the shops and into her restaurant. She presents them with small signs written in Mandarin, warning them about pickpockets and telling them, “If they sit, they have to drink!”

She is open about the fact that Chinese clients account for a growing percentage of her profits and is certain, amid the European financial slump, that Chinese are the future of the tourist industry. 

“I told my son to study Mandarin at school,” she says. “Do you know how to say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?”

“Xiè xie,” I replied.

“Well, the first time my son tried to teach me to say ‘thank you’ in Chinese, I told him off, because it sounded like he was swearing in French!” she says, laughing. Stephanie was too polite to say the French version in front of the camera, but I took her word for it. It seems even with the best will in the world, simple communication can still create a clash of cultures in Paris today.

Source: Al Jazeera