How to Make Americans Feel Welcome in France
While I was traveling last week in Bordeaux, I received an email written in French that appeared to be an an official invitation to what I thought was a group event that I wasn’t able attend anyway. It’s embarrassing to admit that reading a lot of French still goes over my head like a big black cloud and since time was of the essence, I did a good job of ignoring it. In the letter was a name I recognized well — a French friend who I had met eons ago when he was a major player in the Paris tourist office at the Hôtel de Ville, but that still didn’t set off any alarms.
Then, he contacted me, “Can you meet me for dinner one night this week? It’s important.”
He’s an important guy and has been the source of many an inside scoop as well as a connection to the powers that be. Thanks to him, I’ve had the pleasure of attending meetings at the City Hall when American mayors were visiting Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, such as Anthony Williams (Washington, DC), Michael Bloomberg (New York), Richard Daley (Chicago) and Gavin Newsom (San Francisco). When Williams was in Paris, I was one of three journalists in the mayor’s office during a private meeting to which my friend commented, “I’ve never been in the mayor’s private office myself!” (You can imagine how privileged I felt.)
Of course, I said yes to dinner. Something was up his sleeve and I sensed that the letter written in French which contained his name had something to do with his wanting to see me.
At the table, the first words out of his mouth were, “Did you get the letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?”
“Oh, is that what it was?”
Then, he began to explain that he had a random phone call from the Prime Minister’s office, Edouard Philippe, that at first he thought was a joke. He was astounded himself that they asked him to recommend a dozen individuals who could assist the Ministry in learning how to better welcome American tourists coming for the 2024 Olympics – how to make them feel welcoming and have a good experience. When he thought about who would make good candidates, he discounted the CEO’s of big corporations and thought about the people who would have their ears to the ground and “tell it like it is.”
“Can you do this, Adrian?” he asked.
I must have screeched in response, startling all the other patrons in the small, quiet neighborhood restaurant! “Are you serious? Moi? In front of these important officials? Yikes! Can I speak English?”
“Yes, yes, yes. Don’t worry. I’ll be there. They all speak English.
“That led to a discussion about what I was going to say to them during the one-and-a-half hours of the meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay and now I’m in process of preparing for it. Preparing for this honor means making a presentation with broad and powerful strokes – the kind that can make a real difference.
I share this with you now as I welcome your input. There will be a 15-minute presentation and then a Q and A. Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to make a big impression, so it must be concise and carry a big punch.
I want to start out explaining the difference in English Common Law vs Napoleonic Code and how that translates to our culture differences. These are lawmakers, but I bet even they don’t fully understand the fundamental difference that explains just about everything. This was an eye-opening concept for me that helped me understand the French better than anything else in all the years I’ve lived here.
The fundamental cultural difference between France and our native culture is this:
NAPOLEONIC CODE: “Everything which is not allowed is forbidden.”
ENGLISH LAW: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”
The legal system in Anglo Saxon countries is based on what is forbidden while the legal system in France is based on what’s allowed. In America, you can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and everything else is allowed. In France, you are supposed to do this and you are supposed to do that and everything else is not allowed. This means that English law engenders open-minded, out-of-the-box thinking, while Napoleonic code is about following the rules and thinking within the box. This manifests itself in how our accused are presumed innocent until evidence is brought before the jury to prove guilt, whereas under Napoleonic Code, the accused is presumed guilty and must prove himself to be innocent. Scary to us under English law, but true.
My goal will get the committee to understand that if they can think the way the Americans think, or understand how differently we think than they do, then they can avoid making some of the biggest mistakes.
Money is a big issue and this has to do with our capitalist ideals vs socialist ideals. France has a mixed economic system with elements of both capitalism and socialism while the U.S. is predominantly a capitalist system. Under capitalism, companies live by the profit motive; they exist to make money and therefore money is revered. Socialist systems emphasize equal distribution of wealth among the people and therefore money plays the role of a servant, not a master.
How this plays out is that people who have a direct line with making money, such as sales people, see themselves very differently in France compared to the U.S. Sales personnel in France do not have a high sense of self worth since making money is not revered. They really don’t want to be there to help you spend your money and aren’t taught by their superiors that “the customer is king.” In the U.S., it’s the exact opposite since making a customer happy and ultimately making more money is what drives the economy and their self worth.
All the years living in France, this has been the hardest aspect of cultural difference to deal with on a daily basis, even though I understand it. I may never get over it, either — and the committee needs to get this in a very big way. Not getting good customer service will certainly not make us feel very welcomed at all.
Part of the problem also has to do with the difference in the organizational structure of most companies. The traditional U.S. system is pyramidal and therefore the decision-making filters down to those who have direct contact with the customer, thus empowering those people to do what is necessary. In France, the structures are in the form of a star, with management at the core and all others radiating from the center. Imagine it like the “Etoile-Place Charles de Gaulle-Arc de Triomphe. People at the points are not empowered to do what is necessary without permission from the center core management. So, if you bring a problem to a customer service person, it’s likely they won’t be able to help you without asking the “résponsable.”
Another factor I feel is very important for the committee to understand is how Americans are “Honest Abes.” George Washington “chopped down a cherry tree and couldn’t tell a lie” – how many times have we heard the story, even though it’s not very credible? Then, there was Abraham Lincoln, known for his honesty…and let’s not forget about President Bill Clinton who was impeached on the charges of perjury (lying about having sex in the Oval Office) and obstruction of justice.
I find that Americans in general, do not lie and do not cheat on their taxes. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but truth is very highly valued. This means that ever since all secondary residences in Paris fall under the current rental laws as “illegal,” Americans don’t want to “break the law,” even though their only choice is to either opt for hotels instead or stay in someone’s primary residence surrounded by the landlord’s personal belongings. The initiative to drive the tourists out to make room for more affordable housing isn’t very welcoming at all. It also means that American owners of secondary properties don’t want to break the law by renting out their apartments. Plus, making money from your own property is frowned upon, remember? The French, on the other hand, have the gumption to continue doing whatever they can get away with until someone points the finger at them for “not following the rules” – let’s face it, they are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent, anyway!
What else would make Americans feel welcome in France during the 2024 Olympics? Let’s hear what you have to say, but please, think BROAD STROKES THAT CAN REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Email your ideas to [email protected].
A la prochaine,
Editor of Parler Nice
Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. I’m writing you from glorious Nice this week and am traveling to Provence today, so I’ll have much more to say about the South of France in Wednesday’s Nouvellettre®. Stay tuned.