How to Queue in France


Crédit Agricole bank: scene of traditional queuing behaviour
Crédit Agricole bank: scene of traditional queuing behaviour

Forming a neat queue is inscribed in we Brits’ DNA. Not so our French counterparts. Our two countries are separated only by a 30-mile stretch of water, but in some respects it might as well be 30 light years. Having lived here for nearly 18 years, I don’t notice some of the cultural differences anymore or have happily embraced them. But there are still aspects of French life and culture that I don’t get. Queuing is one of them.

How do you queue in the UK (or when I lived there, anyway; it might have changed)?

Answer: line up in an orderly fashion, one behind the other, and wait your turn to be served.

How do you queue in France?

Answer: this is somewhat more complicated and operates according to the three-metre principle and the random position rule.

The three-metre principle

If you are next in line for the distributeur de billets (cash machine) at the bank, make sure you stand three metres from the person using it without actually standing outside the door. To some extent, this is fair enough. That person doesn’t want you seeing their code confidentiel. But perhaps three metres is a bit excessive.

Our local bank branch has automatic doors. If you are unfortunate enough to have someone queuing in front of you who works on the three-metre principle, you make the doors open and close nonstop. Not only is this irritating, it’s also uncomfortable when an icy gale is blowing, as I experienced 10 days ago.

The random position rule

Queuing at La Poste operates along similar lines, only they don’t have automatic doors. Customers take up random positions around the room, so that it’s difficult to tell whose turn it is. Even those in the ‘queue’ sometimes forget and look quizzically at each other trying to work it out.

If you are unable to adopt either of the above 

It’s not so easy to adopt the random position rule or the three-metre principle at the supermarket checkout. But you can still cause désagrément to those behind you by staying at the end of the conveyor belt and preventing them from unloading their shopping onto it.

However, I have my strategy for dealing with this. No, it’s not ramming my trolley into their shins. I smile sweetly, point at the empty conveyor and ask, ‘Je peux?’ This usually works.

The milling about chaotically approach

The worst queuing experience I have ever had was when I took an exam in Toulouse. But this was the organisers’ fault, not the examinees’. Several hundred people milled about in front of a line of tables waiting to register. It wasn’t until you got to the front that you realised it was organised alphabetically according to your surname.

You then had to locate the right position, which was invariably not the one you were at. More milling about took place, leading to near chaos, so the exam started 15 minutes late. Why didn’t they post up A-F, G-L etc visibly on the wall behind? Or is that too British?

However, I am prepared to forgive the French all their queuing foibles, because they greet everyone when they enter a shop or a restaurant. You don’t get that in the UK, where everyone pretends no one else is there.

This post should be taken with a pinch of salt. But, as with all stereotypes, my queuing typology contains a grain of truth.

You might also like:

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Exams French Style
What Symbolises France?
French sanitary arrangements: NOT one of the reasons I moved to France

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  1. This kind of explains the French system of forming a queue. France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland – I find queuing chaotic. The British do this the best:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there’s an element of tongue in cheek here. I’m surprised that the Swiss aren’t better at queuing – judging by your comment. I always thought they were such orderly people. The Brits queue well but vote badly……


        • I replied to your comment above on 23 June at 21.06 CET, i.e. well before the Brexit vote results were out and I was referring to many examples in history, not to the current situation. 🙂 My views are my own, I keep them to myself and I’m not going to share what I think about Brexit on social media. I deplore the continuing hostile and bitter debate about this issue.


      • we only have 2 nights there, on route to Milan… but if you can get there, we would LOVE to meet you. A longer trip to France (including the Camino) is on the agenda, just not sure when!


  2. The French queue?? Could have fooled me! Clever post, Vanessa…and true! In the States we learn how to queue (we call it ‘line up’) very first thing in kindergarten and it stays with us all our lives. I was totally amazed my first trip to Paris…great crowds milling around doors waiting for an event to start, the doors to open. Utter chaos, it appeared. But it actually always went quite smoothly…everyone entered in good time, no one got trampled, and everyone was pleasant. And we all raised eyebrows in solidarity when one pushy French woman elbowed her way in first!!


    • I guess that if you’re brought up with the chaotic way of doing things, you get to learn how to work the system! For those of us taught to line up neatly, it’s hard to get to grips with it! And the exam registration in Toulouse was just off the scale.


  3. In Spain it’s usually quite simple. When you approach an apparently formless crowd waiting the polite form is to ask ‘Quien es el ultimo(a)?’ Who is the last? The established order then seems well respected, at least in Catalonia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we do that here, too. In the bank it’s never clear if people are queuing for the ATM or for the counter. So the simplest is just to ask. The other day my husband was covered with embarrassment because he unwittingly queue-jumped at the bank for the ATM, but that’s because the person notionally in front was so far removed from it that it looked as if she was waiting for an appointment or something. My mantra is, if in doubt ask.


  4. Yes, I’ve noticed it’s similar to Italy, but like Italians the French have noted their positions even if it does look haphazard. The other thing I’ve noted here (not like this in Italy) is that once you are being served the shop-keeper politely waits (after the sale) for you to stop shuffling around your money, stuffing your things into a basket and move off, before he/she turns to the next customer. I found this very odd behaviour at first since Italians would go barmy waiting for all of that to go on before they could get their order in. I find it quite charming now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, totally agree. I still find it quite irritating sometimes that you have to continue to wait while the previous customer sorts themselves out before the shopkeeper serves you. But maybe this is part of the French culture of politesse. And down here, nobody is in a hurry.


  5. My experiences are much the same, Vanessa, but I quite like the way they do it. My other experience is queues at ski lifts, now that’s very civilized if you’ve every skied in Austria (but I’ll not get into other stereotyped nationalities, but you prorbably know who I mean!) The Brits are not exactly pushy, but perhaps use my own strategy of subtling nudging towards the front and nobody bats an eye. Sometimes you even get an ‘après vous, madame.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ski lifts are a subject unto themselves. The best service we have encountered was in Canada at Lake Louise. There, they guaranteed you would be on a chair lift within 10 minutes, or you got the price of your lift pass reimbursed for that day (not sure how they ever policed that). But they were amazingly efficient and good-natured with it. You’d arrive in the morning and think, ‘How the hell are they going to sort out this crowd?’, but they did. When I compare that with some of our experiences in Europe, it’s a different ball game.


  6. The “milling about chaotically approach!” Hahaha I love it! Americans are usually pretty orderly about lines too. We usually have lines set up with ropes to corral people in at banks and post offices so nobody can cut each other. My local grocery store Trader Joe’s (kind of an institution here in the US) is in an underground basement and there are about 25-30 cashiers at one end of the store. The line wraps around the grocery store most of the time because it is very popular in my neighborhood and you have employees who are designated to specifically keep the line organized and moving. Most people stand in line and shop as they go around the store, it’s chaotic in itself. I think Anglophones are just better at lines in general. In Spain it was just as bad as in France.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find the differences between different cultures fascinating. Generalisations of the kind I’ve made here can always be proved wrong but attitudes to queuing do seem to follow national traditions.


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