With the season of goodwill now upon us, it’s customary to show one’s appreciation of certain public employees in France. This year, perhaps more than any other, they deserve our recognition. But what sum should you give, when, and how? What are the rules?
Conundrum for foreigners
I’ll admit that when we moved to France, tipping local public servants was not something we had done as a matter of course in the UK. I have a vague recollection that we gave the postman a Christmas “box” when I was a girl, but I’m not sure about that.
In A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle wrote that he and his wife were bemused when the pompiers (firemen) turned up with a calendar. The centime finally dropped when one of the pompiers said with a wink, “It’s free, or you can buy it if you want.” This was the Mayles’ first encounter with French Christmas tipping.
The practice of a New Year’s tip goes back to antiquity. The word for tip in French is étrennes, which may originate from Strena, the goddess of health, who was venerated on 1st January. The presents given took the name Strenae.
After the French Revolution, the practice of tipping, or giving presents to, state employees was forbidden, since it was considered a form of corruption.
No official rules, in fact, encompass tipping today. It’s not prescribed at a national level. Locally, however, mayors can regulate or forbid the practice if they fear it may lead to scamming. Normally, this isn’t an issue in country areas, since you generally know the people involved.
You see the postman/woman (facteur/factrice) nearly every day. It’s easy enough to leave an envelope in your post-box, since only the facteur has a key to it.
The pompiers are required to wear uniform when they come to the house and give you a receipt for your contribution. In return they leave a calendar. Here, they usually turn up after New Year.
You are less likely to know the bin-emptiers (ébouers), since the communal rubbish bins are located in convenient spots for the whole quartier. I have yet to work out how to leave something for them. You can imagine that an envelope containing cash wouldn’t last long. Any ideas?
How much should you give? Again, there’s no official list of tariffs. However, accepted practice seems to be a five euro note for the facteur and the ébouers and a tenner for the pompiers, most of whom are volunteers. This is at your discretion.
We are happy to give the pompiers a generous contribution. Not only do they put out fires and attend road accidents, but they also provide first aid, which is crucial in country areas far from hospitals. They proved to be life-savers when we had an emergency a couple of years ago.
Tipping in restaurants and bars
While we’re on the subject, what about tipping in French restaurants? Generally, you don’t. Service is included in the bill, and additional tips are discretionary. If you feel you’ve had particularly good service, there’s nothing to stop you leaving a tip, which will be appreciated. But it’s neither compulsory nor expected.
For coffee or drinks in a bar, the same applies, but you can round up the bill to the nearest euro or leave a few small denomination coins if you wish. In many bars and restaurants, you pay at the till, where you might see a bowl or jar in which you can leave a few coins. These are shared among the waiting staff.
Let’s hope it won’t be too long before those of you hoping to visit France can try out these recommendations.
Life on La Lune French Christmas Quiz
Advance warning of the Life on La Lune French Christmas Quiz 2020. This year’s is the 10th edition of this eagerly anticipated (by me, anyway) event. I will post the questions on 23rd December, so read the blog, since many of the questions are drawn from the posts, and sharpen your pencils and your wits. No prizes: virtue is its own reward.
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