It seems my questions about my frequent-flier number and baggage transfer were meant for a colleague somewhere else at Charles De Gaulle airport. Perhaps in the duty-free corridor. Or Le Bureau de l’insignifiance dans le Ministère de L'insolence.
Customer Relations Management, meet France. Bonne chance. You will need it.
Mind you, they theoretically do have CRM here. It is called service clients (a fabulous oxymoron along the lines of “military intelligence” or “Internet privacy.”) But they don’t seem to fully understand the terms -- not “client” and certainly not “service.”
To observe that the French are haughty and uncooperative is a cliché and scurrilous stereotype, justified only in the narrowest sense that it is constantly proving itself to be true. The vaunted French culture includes not only Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Bonnard, Zola, Proust, Balzac, Baudelaire, Offenbach, Debussy, Berlioz, Bizet and Faure, but also the snub, the shrug and the elevation of xenophobic contempt to high art. (What’s the French word for “chauvinism?”) Waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks and functionaries of every stripe are a sorry lot -- as in “I am sorry, monsieur. There is nothing I can do.”
Vive la France! Liberté, fraternité, impossibilité!
The Air France episode is mere prologue. Having traveled many times to this land of sauces and summertime labor strikes, I could have plucked any number of anecdotes to make my point: the taxi driver who would not drive until I uncrossed my leg, the doorkeeper who would not let a speaker’s 12-year-old daughter enter the speaker’s lounge with her because the child was not a speaker, the concierge who would not acknowledge a missed wake-up call.
A common complaint, that one. The Italians famously regarding traffic signals as a suggestion. The French regard a wake-up call as a challenge to their sovereignty. If they had fought the Nazis the way they fight the will of their guests not to sleep through meetings, the world would be a different place. But this is a proud and stubborn people. To phone somebody who has asked to be phoned -- it is so…subservient. Thus do complaints fall on a nation’s deaf ear, especially at the front desk.
“I left a wake-up call last night for 8 a.m. It is now 10 a.m. and I have missed an important appointment.”
“Monsieur, I am very sorry [translation: “I am not sorry at all”] but it is not my responsibility. You will have to speak to my colleague.”
“Where is your colleague?”
“He is home asleep.”
One could phone that night manager and wake him, but what would that accomplish? The only satisfaction would be to wait until he needed to rise for work and then somehow uncall to unwake him.
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Service clients is the art of the impossible, the apotheosis of passive-aggressiveness in a country where hostility and resentment are birthrights. But never mind the catalogue of past grievances; there is a fresh example, from the Cannes Lions Festival, that would be like something from Kafka were it not exactly something from Hitchcock.
Your correspondent as on the patio of Le Grand Hotel, watching the sea before dinner at the hotel’s chi-chi Le Park 45. “Une bière, s'il vous plaît.” The waiter returned promptly with a bottle of 1664, along with a bowl of peanuts. Moments later, your hero was subjected to a frantic outbreak of nature. A flock of seagulls had made from the blue Mediterranean straight for the table and instantly engulfed me, their wings flapping like tent canvas, their beaks and talons pecking furiously.
I was like Tippi Hedren, only with facial hair. This went on for close to a minute and it was unnerving. Not only was I being swarmed upon by nine huge angry birds, my 1664 was in jeopardy. At Cannes prices, you can have a beer or you can have a liver transplant. Nobody can afford both.
Finally, from behind me there was a loud crack. The waiter had smacked two chair cushions together. A second and third wallop finally frightened the gulls away.
So I finished my beer. When I was ready to leave, I summoned the waiter and asked if perhaps, under the circumstances, I could consider my refreshment on the house.
“Monsieur, what are you asking? The beer is 9 euro.”
“I was attacked by birds.”
“But these are birds, monsieur. There is nothing I can do.”
“Does this happen often?”
“Oui, it happens.”
“Are they after the peanuts?”
“Oui, they like the peanuts.”
“Did I order peanuts?”
“Monsieur, you ordered a beer. The peanuts are, of course, complimentary.”
“Did I order the peanuts?”
“I do not understand what you are asking me.”
“It seems you have a marauding seagull problem -- giant birds fighting with one another for peanuts. It seems to me you placed seagull bait on my table, where all I wanted to do was enjoy a beer. But a flock of hungry birds, enticed by the peanuts you placed there for them, began thrashing about my head and upper body. They did not, in the end, peck my eyes out -- and I am grateful, for I am sure there would have been a charge for that service. But nonetheless I repeat: Would you care to buy me a beer? As a courtesy for my inconvenience.”
”The beer is 9 euro, monsieur.”
I gave the man a 10 and told him to keep the change -- a small token of respect for the pride of a nation. But I'm pessimistic for that nation's ability to adapt to a CRM world. To bastardize Bogart's closing prediction to Claude Rains, Casablanca's French prefect of police: “This is the beginning of a terrible relationship.”