Parisians have a right to be rude

The Guardian - 03 March 2010

One of the down sides of coming from the most sophisticated, cultured and beautiful city in the world is that British people traditionally think you’re a bit of a show-off. Paris attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the channel every year, but many still associate its full-time residents with a grossly inflated sense of both civic pride and self-worth which invariably manifest themselves in arrogance.

Anti-French perceptions emanating from abroad are naturally disappointing, but historically pardonable. Iconic Gallic figures from Napoleon Bonaparte to Charles de Gaulle, through Molière and Jean-Paul Sartre, all perpetuated the myth of the bolshy misanthrope moved to greatness, so why shouldn’t we continue the tradition? Unless you can pout inscrutably, shrug your shoulders to the sky, and emit a resounding “Bof!” at a bit of overseas prejudice, then you don’t deserve to call yourself a Parisian anyway.

But – zut alors! – according to a new poll published in the political weekly Marianne, it’s not just the Brits who think we’re inexorable egotists. It’s the provincial French too.

“L’image des Parisiens auprès des Français hors agglomération parisienne” (The image of the Parisians according to the French outside the Parisian conurbation”), an inquiry as brutally frank as it is literally titled, finds that our fellow countrymen think of us as far more “snobbish”, “aggressive” and “self-centred” than anyone else. This apparent character assassination, all of which is backed up by a detailed CSA poll, concludes that the 11 million-plus inhabitants of greater Paris are, on the whole, “less generous, tolerant, relaxed, funny or welcoming” than those living elsewhere.

Next they’ll be saying that our gendarmes don’t like to be addressed as Clouseau, or that our Michelin-starred chefs get irritated when you ask for the ketchup. But the Marianne survey is far from condescending. Instead, it suggests that many of the personality traits of the average Parisian might not be wholly negative ones. Sixty-eight per cent of those questioned generally had a “good opinion” of city dwellers despite their faults, pointing out that a life based on “métro-boulot-dodo” (underground-work-sleep) is the cause of all this urban angst.

Modern Parisians are in-your-face and surly not because of clichéd antecedents, but because they are increasingly being forced to live in a fast-paced, overcrowded, competitive city which gets more like London or New York every day. Coping with the demands of Anglo-Saxon globalisation (everything from sandwiches-at-your-desk offices to sweat-and-briefcase commuter trains) can’t be done with a smile on your face. Instead, you have to be as snarly as the British and Americans are prone to be when confronted by deadlines, packed stations, and a rising cost of living.

The truth is that Paris is no longer defined by its tourist landmarks, trust-fund bourgeoisie, or intellectual and artistic cliques on the Left Bank. It’s one of the biggest, most densely populated cities in the world, and it’s increasingly open for business. Under such circumstances, its proud inhabitants are bound to get more than a little tetchy.

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