- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

PARIS — The French are arrogant, rude and surly to foreign visitors, said a leading French politician behind a scathing report on how the Gallic welcome leaves much to be desired.

Bernard Plasait, a member of France’s upper house of parliament, has concluded what millions of visitors have known for years.

“Our bad image in this area, the arrogance we are accused of, our refusal to speak foreign languages, the sense we give that it’s a great honor to visit us are among the ugly facts of which we should not be proud,” reads the first paragraph of Mr. Plasait’s report, which was commissioned by the government.

“Certainly, these accusations don’t date from yesterday,” the report continues.

Mr. Plasait’s report was commissioned by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, after a drop in tourism in France last year.

France is still the world’s No. 1 tourist destination in terms of numbers. But the report concludes that this is meaningless because a considerable proportion are just passing through on their way somewhere else.

“To claim we are the ‘number-one tourist destination in the world’ doesn’t count for anything,” says the report. “Among the 75 million visitors counted in 2003 were those who were only crossing the country, once on their way to Spain or Italy and a second time to return home.”

The report says a more realistic way of judging is by the annual income from tourists, which places France in third place with $36 billion after the United States ($90 billion) and Spain ($40 billion).

It also cites a survey of world travelers by the European polling firm Ipsos, which asked people which countries they would most like to visit. The survey placed France fourth, behind Italy, Spain, Britain and equal to the United States.

The French government particularly was alarmed by the 21 percent, or $6 billion, drop in spending by visitors from the United States.

The Plasait report focuses on visitors’ first impressions of French airports, ports and railway stations, which, it concluded, were “often negative.”

It criticized a lack of warmth and professionalism among staff and a failure to regard the customer as king.

Paris’ main airport, Charles de Gaulle/Roissy, which handles almost 50 million passengers a year, was singled out for criticism.

Surly staff, slow baggage handlers, a lack of “Welcome to France” signs, confusing directions, poor transportation connections, slow and dirty trains, and taxi drivers who do not speak English were among the complaints.

The report also attacks immigration officers for giving a bad impression of the country.

“Instead of behaving like ambassadors for France, they don’t even respond to ‘hello’ or a smile,” it says.

“A welcome without a smile and without warmth is like a cold shower for a traveler who is expecting to be enchanted by a romantic city,” says the report. “Our welcome has to be magic; it has to give an image of excellence and availability.”

Mr. Plasait concludes his report with 81 proposals on how the French can become better hosts. He says they have to become motivated and enthusiastic.

“They have to learn that the tourist is not a nuisance but a benefit. Our welcome is not good enough. … This is not a fantasy, but a cruel reality.”

Tourism Minister Leon Bertrand said, “Our aim is to let tourists know that France is trying to improve its welcome and the French that they have to do better.”

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