Strikes are an unfortunate part of life in France that regularly hits travellers. Trains, airlines and air traffic controls are regularly hit. Amongst airlines, it is notably the historic national carriers such as Air France and British Airways that are hit by strikes, whereas it will be a great challenge to find a low-cost airline on strike. Flying low-cost may mean less comfort, but it is also a sure way of reducing the risk of being hit by a strike. In general, you can presume that the more a sector is associated with the government, old corporatist structures or privileged employment conditions, the more likely it is to be hit by strikes.
Ports are also sometimes hit. Ferries connecting Corsica to the mainland are often the target of union strikes or blockades, either by port staff or by staff from the public ferry company SNCM or both.
Marseilles port is a particular problem with unions apparently determined to destroy the port by strikes and blockades hitting all sectors, including tourism. It happens too often that private tours from Marseilles port booked by cruise passengers have to be entirely reorganised or cancelled at the last moment from another port because of a strike in Marseilles port. Be sure to understand the terms and conditions for such tours in case of reorganisation or cancellation, as the tour organiser will normally exempt themselves from liability in case of strikes, although in practice, they will try to do everything possible to minimise the impact on the tourist.
Another problem in Marseille is that whenever there is a pretext for striking, trash collection grinds to a halt, and the entire city is transformed into a giant, stinking garbage can with trash overflowing into the streets everywhere.
In the majority of cases, of course, travellers are not hit by strikes. Just be aware that the risk is higher in France than in most other places, and then decide what level of risk you are prepared to take.
Commercial Practices in France
Avoid the tourist traps
Restaurant service charge
A hint about restaurants: If you just want to drink tap water instead of paying for bottled water, then it is perfectly all right and very common to ask for a carafe d'eau, which is not invoiced at all (even though, legally, they would be entitled to do so). Tap water is rigorously controlled in France by authorities, and there is no need to worry about it. As a matter of fact, bottled water often has a higher count of germs, because it is still.
Restaurants and industrial meals
Wall Street Journal covered the subject of frozen meals in French restaurants in an article titled France's Plat du Jour: Frozen Meals on 17 May 2013.
Similar conditions is the case for bakeries. Read more about that on my commercial practices page for expats in France.
A problem that is rather more difficult to excuse is lack of hygiene, which is sometimes no better than what George Orwell described in his book "Down and Out in Paris and London" in 1933. It is a fact that inspectors frequently fine or close restaurants. It is another fact that the need for inspectors vastly exceeds the number of inspectors available. It is a third fact that restaurants have no obligation to display the results of the last inspection. As an example, I have heard a first-hand account from a former waiter that the owner ordered her to serve ham that was visibly over the date and had gone blue to a couple of Swiss guests, because "they are not going to come back anyway". "Just turn the slice, so they don't see it", the owner said. The restaurant was eventually closed after an inspection. She also mentioned serving meat that had fallen on the floor, but that is so common that it's hardly worth mentioning. At least that won't give you a food poisoning. Also be prepared for minor swindle, such as putting high-quality Charolais beef on the menu but being unable to show anything else than ordinary beef to inspectors who had just ordered the Charolais. This is unfortunately not fiction. One can regularly read about these problems in French press. Unfortunately, the low moral of some restaurant owners means that tourists will get the worst service and the worst quality these places, because they are not going to come back anyway. As I said, don't bother tipping, unless you really feel that you have been given a friendly service and a high-quality meal. Do not hesitate to complain about bad quality. If you speak French enough to explain it, and you are having problems with food over the date, you could even threaten to report them to the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, Consommation et Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF), which has the power to close them. I will in fact be happy to forward complaints to them from tourists who send me detailed accounts of hygiene problems or swindle, because the bad reputation is also hurting honest restaurants.
Do not become paranoid, but use your common sense. If the food is cheap, don't expect a gourmet meal. Usually, you get what you pay for. If the toilet is dirty, maybe the kitchen is too. Try to find places where the locals eat. There are many good restaurants, but without recommendations, it may be a lottery.
Making you think you buy a local quality product but selling you a
Crime and Fraud in France - Travel Warnings
Car Crime: France is no different than other countries: Thieves steal cars. However, modern immobiliser systems have made it impossible for common thieves to steal equipped cars. As a result, they attack the only weak point left: The driver. While the total number of stolen cars is going down, the number of car jackings at red lights and underground car parks is increasing. It is therefore advisable to always lock all doors and never leave anything like bags, suits, coats, papers or anything else that thieves might want to steal at a visible place in the car. There is also an increasing number of smash and grab incidents where thieves run off with your purse after having smashed a window. This is particularly a problem on the Riviera and between the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and Paris centre, since the road passes through a massive crime zone. Thieves often target single women, foreign-registered cars, diplomatic cars and luxury cars.
Taxis, limousines, excursions etc.: Use only licensed transport
services. Unlicensed crooks are trying to profit from unsuspecting tourists. You
don't know if they are insured and if their vehicles are in good condition, and
you risk being robbed or worse.
Public places - railway stations - airports - trains: Such places are prime spots for pickpockets and downright thieves who will not hesitate to grab your money out of your hands and run away.
Particularly dangerous are the Paris railway stations Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est, and especially outside rush hours. Police and the SNCF are very much aware of the problems but have chosen not to get rid of the criminals sitting around there, just waiting for the next victim. As shameful as it is, it's easier for them just to take crime reports from tourists in their comfortable offices. A common scam at then Gare du Nord is that someone offers to buy a travelcard for you because it's cheaper. Before you can protest, he puts money in the machine and then insists that you pay him 40 € before giving you the ticket. Don't pay him anything but walk away quickly. You can be sure of one thing only: It's a scam of some kind. It's likely that the ticket he will sell you for 40 € is only worth one euro or so. The ticket machines often have buttons for displaying foreign languages, at least in tourist areas. If you cannot figure out how to use the machine, then prefer the queue for the ticket office rather than a criminal 'helping' you.
Police have discovered organised theft at the Paris Charles de Gauelle airport, where baggage handling staff were stealing valuable items from checked luggage, even entire suitcases. Do not put valuable items in checked luggage. Avoid using luxury brands for your suitcases. The more the suitcase looks old, cheap and worn, the less likely you are to become a crime victim.
Watch your stuff all the time and never, ever take your wallet, money or credit cards out in such places if you can avoid it. Keep values in a money belt under your clothes if possible and try to predict what you might need of petty cash and if necessary a single credit card and take out only these things that you need. Avoid travelling with more than a reasonable amount of cash, for example 100-200 €. Avoid displaying jewellery, expensive watches and similar. The more you look like a wealthy foreigner, the more likely you are to be subject to crime. A worn no-name T-shirt attracts fewer thieves than a new fashion-brand T-shirt, but an old T-shirt would not be well seen at certain classy restaurants, so there is a balance to strike. Wearing an old T-shirt doesn't help if you keep a wallet stuffed with cash in a back pocket, on easy display for thieves. Some tourists have carried old wallets stuffed with paper in their back pockets to trick the thieves. The thief grabs it and runs, not getting your valuables. I don't know if it's effective, though.
Avoid night trains, and particularly in the south. Criminal gangs have been operating in these trains.
If you can, avoid the fast metro (RER) between Gare du Nord and the Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport at Roissy. That train passes through some of the most dangerous suburbs north of Paris. Some of the departures have very few stops before the Gare du Nord. If you must traval by train, prefer these direct departures to those stopping at every station. But in general, prefer an airport bus or taxi. In general, avoid public transport in Paris' northern suburbs because of the crime centres there.
Petty Swindle: France is full of people who swindle small amounts out of many people. For example, when I was picking someone up at the Lille Europe railway station, a guy came over to ask for one euro to make a phone call because his car had broken down. I politely declined. When I came to the same station again two weeks later, the same guy came over with the same story. Later, I saw him using a mobile phone. Whatever the excuse, decline all requests for money. It's likely to be bogus.
Watch your Change: People speaking French with a strong accent or maybe not at all are more likely to get too little change back or to "accidentally" find foreign coins amongst the change. You should notably watch the 2 euro coin, as Thailand's 10 baht resemble it in size and colour but is almost worthless. Some waiters may try to keep your change as an acquired tip without asking. Don't accept that. Restaurants are obliged to include a service charge in their published prices, and no tips beyond that are mandatory.
Some cashiers at large, 'anonymous' stores like supermarkets and their fuel outlets keep some of the change for themselves, typically the cents, if you pay in cash, so as to increase their wages with a few euros each day. Most people don't count their change or notice that a few cents are missing. I have personally seen this happen in even well-reputed stores as Auchan and E. Leclerc. It's not going to ruin your finances, but if you disapprove of the principle of such practices, it's perfectly legitimate to ask for the rest of the change, even if you may get a sulky response. I have never seen a cashier insist that correct change had been given in such a case, because they know very well that it's not the case, and in the vast majority of cases, it's deliberate. The sulky response is simply a reaction to having been found out. If you pay by credit or charge card, this is not an issue. But watch out for other credit card scams. Read on.
Accept only euro notes and coins. The French franc is no longer current and can only be changed in the National Bank and tax offices. As for the euro coins, they are valid even if issued by another EU member. Euro notes carry no national information and are strictly identical in all EU member states - except for the serial number.
Prevent credit card scams: If a credit card is rejected, the card reader will write a receipt with the text ABANDON. That means the card hasn't been debited. In all cases where a card is read or swiped, insist on getting that receipt, whether the amount was debited or not. If he claims there was a paper jam or no more paper, then ask him to sort out the jam or install new paper, then print a copy. Don't leave before you get it, and tell the retailer you are going to call the police if he doesn't give it to you. Then call the police on the European emergency number 112. Do not, in any case, ever, pay cash if a card has already been read or swiped and you haven't received the ABANDON ticket. If you pay cash, take the time to assure that the receipt is for cash (espèces), not for credit card (carte bancaire). If you don't ask for a cash receipt, a dishonest shopkeeper could file a complaint with the police, claiming you left without paying, although I haven't heard examples of that in France, only the US.
To sum up: Don't get paranoid, but don't be naive either. Be streetwise like the locals.
About the often murky French business world, you may also want to refer to the article "Other lawyers here have informed me about how sleazy the south east of France is".
Read more about dubious professional practices on this Streetwise-France page.
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