France Tourist Information and Tips
Crime-related emergencies can be reported to the toll-free number 17. Law enforcement forces are the National Police ( Police Nationale ) in urban area and the Gendarmerie in rural area, though for limited issues such as parking and traffic offenses some towns and villages also have a municipal police.
France is not a high-crime area, but large cities are plagued with the usual woes. Violent crime against tourists or strangers is rather rare, but there is a significant amount of pickpocketing and purse-snatching.
The inner city areas and a few select suburbs are usually safe at all hours. In large cities, especially Paris, there are a few areas which are better to avoid. Parts of the suburban are sometimes grounds for youth gang violent activities and drug dealing; however these are almost always far from touristic points and you should have no reason to visit them. Common sense applies: it is very easy to spot derelict areas.
Carrying or using narcotic substances, from marijuana to hard drugs, is illegal whatever the quantity. The penalty can be severe especially if you are suspected of dealing. Trains and cars coming from countries which have a more lenient attitude (like the Netherlands) are especially targeted. Police have often been known to stop entire coaches and search every passenger and their bags thouroughly just because they're coming from Amsterdam.
France has a liberal policy with respect to alcohol; there are usually no ID checks for purchasing alcohol (unless you look much younger than 18). However, causing problems due to public drunkenness is a misdemeanor and may result in a night in a police station. Drunk driving is a severe offense and may result in heavy fines and jail sentences.
A little etiquette note: while it is common to drink beer straight from the bottle at informal meetings, doing the same with wine is normally only done by tramps ( clochards ).
The health care in France is considered to be in very high standards. The World Health Organization (WHO) even considers France's health care to be one of the best in the world (In addition, the WHO ranks their health care to be number one).
Pharmacies in France are denoted by a green cross, usually in neon. Contrary to the US habit, they don't double as general stores and sell only medicines, contraceptives, and often beauty and related products (though these can be very expensive). Medicines must be ordered from the counter, even non-prescription medicines. The pharmacist is able to help you about various medicines and propose you generic drugs.
Since drug brand names vary across countries even though the effective ingredients stay the same, it is better to carry prescriptions using the international nomenclature in addition to the commercial brand name. Prescription drugs, including oral contraceptives (aka "the pill"), will only be delivered if a doctor's prescription is shown.
In addition, supermarkets sell condoms ( preservatifs ) and also often personal lubricant, bandages, disinfectant and other minor medical helps. Preservatif machines are often found outside pharmacies in bar toilets, etc.
Medical treatment can be obtained from self-employed physicians, clinics and hospitals. Most general practitioners, specialists (e.g. gynecologists), and dentists are self-employed; look for signs saying Docteur ( medicine generale is general practitioner). The normal price for a consultation with a general practitioner is ˆ21, though some physicians charge more (this is the full price and not a co-payment). Physicians may also do home calls, but these are more expensive.
Residents of the European Union are covered by the French social security system, which will reimburse or directly pay for 70% of health expenses (30% co-payment) in general, though many physicians and surgeons apply surcharges. Other travellers are not covered and will be billed the full price, even if at a public hospital; non-EU travellers should thus probably have a travel insurance covering medical costs. Note, however, that, in general, medical fees in France, even when paying the full price, are low compared to those in the United States.
Hospitals will have an emergency room signposted Urgences .
The following numbers are toll-free:
- 15 Medical emergencies
- 17 Law enforcement emergencies (for e.g. reporting a crime)
- 18 Firefighters
- 112 European standard emergency numbers.
Operators at these numbers can transfer requests to other services if needed (e.g. some medical emergencies may be answered by firefighter groups).
Smoking is prohibited by law in all enclosed spaces accessible to the public (this includes train and subway cars, train and subway station enclosures, workplaces, restaurants and cafes) unless in areas specifically designated for smoking, and there are few of these. There was an exception for restaurants and cafes, but since the 1st January 2008, the smoking ban law is also enforced there. You may face a fine of ˆ68 if you are found smoking in these places.
Though no smoking rules in cafes and restaurants exist, they are widely flouted. The French have a seemingly ignorant habit of disregarding 'stupid laws' so if you are particularly sensitive to cigarette smoke ask either for an outside table or sit near an open window. Be warned in summer when the majority of France is overrun by a heatwave the smell of nicotine becomes stronger and makes eating out hell for asthma sufferers.
Smoking is banned in metro and trains, as well as enclosed stations. Subway and train conductors do enforce the law and will fine you for smoking in non-designated places; if you encounter problems with a smoker in train, you may go find the conductor.
As hotels are not considered as public places, some offer smoking vs non-smoking rooms.
Only people over the age 16 may purchase tobacco products. Shopkeepers may request a photo ID.
It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as a subway car or restaurant. Keep in mind that, though you may be enjoying your holiday, most people around you in the metro or other places are probably going to or back from work and may be tired and thus will react very coldly to tourists babbling at the top of their lungs. If you listen to the locals talk, you will notice that they talk rather softly.
Dress codes are fast disappearing all over the country but very few French people will wear white sneakers, baseball caps, tracksuit pants and flip-flops (except at the beach). Nobody will tell you anything, but you will just be labeled as a tourist. Generally speaking, business casual dress code is sufficient in cities and in all but the most formal occasions.
People won't be offended (although they may be surprised, especially in rural areas) if you wear clothing that is unusual in France, such as a sari, a Scottish kilt, or a djelaba.
Usual courtesy apply when entering churches, and although you may not be asked to leave, it is better to avoid short pants and halter tops.
Some restaurants will frown if you come in dressed for trekking but very few will insist upon a jacket and tie. At the same time, you'll be surprised by the number of French twenty-somethings who show up at a grungy bar in jacket and tie, even if obviously from a thrift-shop.
Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for getting a tan. Taking off your bra will not usually create a stir if you don't mind a bevy of oglers. Taking off the bottom part is reserved to designated nude beaches. People on beaches are usually not offended by a young boy or girl dressed or undressed without covering. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area. Many pools will not allow baggy or "board" swim trunks insisting on snug fitting speedo type trunks.
Breastfeeding in public is very rare but nobody will mind or call the police if you do.
Talking to people
If you try to use your French to address people be careful about the use of "tu" (informal, friendly, and called tutoyer ; which is a verb, to call someone "tu" ) and "vous" (formal, respectful, and called vouvoyer ; vb. to call someone vous ) forms. Using tu can be demeaning to people, since this is the form normally used for addressing children or close friends.
People who do not know each other well seldom use their first name to introduce themselves. Refrain from using someone's first name unless you are invited to do so or if you are with people used to dealing with foreigners. Actually French people will use the "tu" and the "vous", "first name" or "surname" depending on their relationship and the code is not easy to learn.
If that's confusing (or not confusing enough) the key is that it's all about distance. For example a bartender is vous up until the moment that he or she gives you a complementary drink, at which point tu becomes more appropriate, and the use of vous would be a bit off-putting.
For foreigners, the best way to deal with the "tu" and "vous" problem is to address people using "vous" until invited to say "tu", or until addressed by the first name. Doing so will look perhaps a shade old fashioned, but always respectful, while doing otherwise can be pretty rude and embarrassing in some situations. Always use the "vous" form to a law enforcement officer (or other person of authority), even if he may (though he ought not) use the "tu" form to talk to you.
Simplified: Use vous unless:
- the person is genuinely your friend;
- the person is under 16; or
- you've been explicitly told to use "tu"
France is not exactly the same country that one sees portrayed on American television. Its people have a wide variety of opinions about many subjects. Unless you really follow French news closely, you should probably steer clear of discussing internal French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration--you probably don't know much about them and will come across as judgmental and uninformed. Reading French newspapers to get a feel for the wide spectrum of political opinions in France – from the revolutionary left to the nationalistic right – would help.
The French seldom advertise their religious feelings, however, and expect you to avoid doing so as well. Doing so would mot make people feel not at ease. It is also generally considered impolite to inquire about religious or other personal issues. You should also avoid presenting yourself through what you own (house, car, etc.). Do not mention how much you are making in your job until being clearly asked about it as it would otherwise be considered obscene. Instead express your enthusiasm about how great are the responsibilities, or how lucky you were to get there.
Jokes about alleged French military cowardice will be reacted to very coolly. France lost a tremendous number of soldiers during the First World War in order to defend itself. Not only such jokes will not make anybody laugh, but also you will be considered arrogant and ignorant. These jokes are also far off the truth when one looks at the number of wars France has waged during the 20th century.
Anti-French feelings, especially popular amongst the British and Americans, can be fueled by the inadvertent reduction of France to Paris, that is, that all French people act like Parisians, when this is quite far from the truth. Many rural people say that France is a blessed country, the inference drawn that it is cursed by Paris (or the Government. This also included the Germans, but is rare since the 1950s). Paris is a fairly unusual city by French standards and life there is, in some respects, closer to life in London or New York City than in the rest of France. A traveler's experiences with French culture in Paris should be treated as one would treat an experience in the traveler's own country's largest cities; that is, the locals are hurried and "have seen it all". No doubt an American would not consider a trip to New York City as a typical American experience. Reserve judgement until you have traveled far away from Paris.