A few months ago Anne-Marie Wolff, mayor of Morette, a small village in eastern France, made headlines by announcing that she would no longer kiss council officials every morning.
She earned considerable criticism, especially when she claimed that the kiss on the cheek, a standard greeting in France, was little more than sexism masquerading as cultural tradition.
She was accused of insulting ancestral custom and of failing to understand the social codes that set a refined nation apart from boorish Britons. But it seems Ms Wolff, 50, will get her way: social distancing is now de rigueur thanks to the pandemic, and likely to continue for many months, so the French will have to find another way to greet friends, family and colleagues when they finally leave their homes after the lockdown.
The prospect of the end of the intrinsically French custom does not seem to be causing as much angst as might be imagined. Indeed, some are relieved that they will finally be able to escape the incessant cheek kissing. They include some male British expatriates, such as your own correspondent, who have long been flummoxed by an obscure set of rules that vary from region to region — two pecks in Paris, for example, three in the south and four in the west — and which dictate which women to kiss (many but not all) and which men (your bosom buddies, to put it simply). Many French women say they have had enough of having to rub up against the male cheeks of office colleagues, dinner-party guests and their children’s friends’ fathers. “I’ve never liked the habit anyway,” said Anne-Sophie, a sales executive for an international French company. “I’ll be quite happy to keep my distance.”
A recent opinion poll suggested that she was by no means alone, with 72 per cent of respondents saying they would abstain from kissing colleagues when they return to their offices.
Many French women say they have had enough of having to rub up against the male cheeks of office colleagues.
“Les no-kiss”, as opponents are being called, are sometimes depicted as arch-feminists refusing all bodily contact in a distinctly un-French, #Metoo world. David Le Breton, professor of sociology at Strasbourg University, for example, accused them of treating the body as “surplus to requirements, an obstacle to technological progress, even as a threat”.
Yet Mathieu Avanzi, a lecturer in linguistic science at the Sorbonne University in Paris and a specialist on regional French customs, disagreed. “These reactions stem from a much deeper sentiment, that of being sick and tired with a habit that has become more and more common over time. Today everyone kisses everyone, whereas it used to be reserved for the family circle.”
The change followed the May 1968 student uprising, which sought to overturn traditional conservative values in an ultimately misleading stampede towards progress. Men started to kiss close male friends; women kissed pretty much everyone. Commentators hailed an era of egalitarianism.
But it was not as equal as all that, according to Dominique Picard, professor of social psychology at the Sorbonne. She said that the kiss on the cheek, previously a sign of affection for close relatives, had come to symbolise membership of a social caste. “You don’t kiss the concierge even if you see her every day. But you kiss work colleagues if that is the custom in your office. And in that case, it is obligatory because it is a ritualistic act that signifies you belong to the same group.”
Now the question is what comes next? With handshakes also likely to be excluded in a new world, many French people are calling for the introduction of a Japanese-style bow. They say it is a sign of respect and social integration, with none of the disadvantages of the kiss.