Our Locations in France

Monday, January 4, 2016

Privacy in France

Sign on French bathroom with different
sections of the same room for men and women
In France, expectations of privacy are very different than in the United States, and in many instances seem contradictory to Americans. For example, it is not unusual to encounter unisex bathrooms in a public place with men using urinals on one side of the bathroom at the same time that women are using a toilet or washing their hands at a sink a few feet away in the same room. Moreover, it is not uncommon to see a man making little effort to conceal himself urinating on the side of the road. Similarly, nudity or partial nudity is more common in France than the United States, whether it is on the beach, in clothing stores where people are trying on clothing, or in the media. Apparently, normal bodily functions and parts of the human body are not areas where the French expect a lot of privacy. It seems to be assumed that the obligation is on you to protect the privacy of others by not looking.
Outdoor bathroom in French park
(only partially screened from public areas)

Displays of affection seem to be viewed as a necessary bodily function because public displays of amorousness that would be considered completely inappropriate in the United States are very normal in a park, in a train station or on a public sidewalk. But don't take a picture of others expressing affection; a French court ruled that it was an invasion of privacy to take a picture of British royals kissing on the deck of a yacht.

Walls and gates along the street where we live
The French seem to have particularly high expectations of privacy around their family and their homes. Most homes are surrounded by high walls that block any view of the grounds. You never know what is hidden on the other side of a wall or gate. It could be a grand mansion with a carefully tended garden or it might be an old decaying house that has been broken into cheap apartments with rotting shutters and a courtyard full of weeds.


Joan raising the roll-up shutters in the morning.
Most homes (including apartments) have working shutters that are closed each evening and opened each morning to keep out prying eyes. Modern homes and apartments typically have roll-up shutters that can be raised or lowered from the inside with a switch or a handle. In the evening, you don't have to look outside to know that the sun is going down because you can hear all of the shutters closing.

Apartment building in the morning
as residents raise their shutters
All the shutters closed for the night, but they will be open
in the morning.
Unlike Americans, the French also are careful to keep their conversations private from people around them. Although restaurants, tend to be small, with tables packed closely together, it is very unusual to hear even bits and pieces of the conversation at an adjoining table because the French are careful to keep their voices low. You can always tell when there is an American in the restaurant (or train station or other public place) because you can hear their conversation across the room. Even at home, the French seem to be quieter than Americans. We have stayed in several apartments in France, and our house shares commons walls with neighboring homes, but we have rarely heard our neighbors. 

French norms of acceptable conversation and behavior are also significantly different than in the United States. In general, unless you are a close friend or family, it is inappropriate to use a person's first name, use familiar pronouns or ask about their personal life. It is considered an invasion of privacy to ask an acquaintance what they do for a living. It is like asking them how much money they make. However, spirited discussions about religion and politics seem common.

Another area of difference relates to the role of the government in protecting privacy. Tough privacy laws (with civil and criminal penalties) protect the personal life of all French citizens, including politicians and public figures. Basically, it is a violation of the law to write about or take pictures of the personal life of a French citizen without permission, even if the behavior occurs in a public place. Thus, courts have ruled that it was illegal to write about extramarital affairs of the President of France and that it was illegal to take a picture of a British royal sunbathing. However, most French seem to be unconcerned about changes to the law that allow electronic surveillance, monitoring of email or searches without warrants. Of course, like many in the United States, the people who are unconcerned about government invasions of privacy seem to assume that the government will only invade the privacy of terrorists and illegal immigrants. Perhaps the French trust their government more than Americans.

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