(asked by Jo from New Zealand)

You wouldn’t happen to know what the law is on serving water at bars in France, would you? I am sick of going to bars here in Nice and basically getting bullied into drinking everywhere I go. On Saturday night, my friend and I were in a very crowded pub and yet in the space of about 5 minutes a waitress came and handed us a drinks menu, then I went up to the bar where they *did* serve me a couple of glasses of water, but then when the waitress saw us drinking them (identifiable by the plastic cups) she pointedly gave us another menu, at which point we just left. This kind of thing has happened to me before and my friend said that she’s even been lectured by a bartender telling her he has to pay the bills so she should buy a drink. Of course, they do have to pay the bills, and this is not to say that I go out on a Saturday night and drink only water, but if you’re trying to drink responsibly, at some point you’ll probably want to take a break from alcohol and rehydrate - and then there are the sober drivers to consider. Where I come from (New Zealand) I believe pubs are legally obliged to give you water - if they’re not, then certainly they always do and I’ve never experienced such an implicitly aggressive ‘drink or get out’ attitude at home or elsewhere in Europe. And the French are held up as such shining examples of responsible drinking chez moi!

Anyway, that turned into a rant, but it was really annoying… So I guess the question is, is this just touristy Nice or is it everywhere (I used to live in Chamonix and in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and admittedly I don’t recall it happening there, but maybe I was drinking more!) and is there any law on it that I can quote to them (and probably get myself kicked out…) If you want to say some words on the cultural divide between how the rest of the world sees the French as sophisticated a-glass-of-wine-with-dinner-and-no-more drinkers and the likes of my lycée students who snort with derision when I mention this stereotype to them, feel free! icon biggrin Drinking water in French bars ?

Well, Jo…
First of all, I won’t be looking for the answer in the “French book of restaurants and bars law.” I don’t know how things are in New Zealand with laws, hopefully, not like in the US (where lawyers constitute one third of the population, and the second third hires them to sue the third third) but in France, when it comes to these particular sorts of things, laws don’t matter, only habits do.
So my first advice is whatever the actual law says, the last thing you want to do is to quote it to bartenders if you’re in disagreement with them.
As you’re already aware of, the only result you will achieve is to get yourself kicked out and blacklisted from that place (and give a bad reputation to New Zealanders in the process, you wouldn’t want that, would you?)
So, yes, it’s all part of the “when in Rome” thing and the fact that no, in France, the customer is not always right. Always remember that when you go to a privately owned place (small business, restaurant, bar) you are in somebody’s place, they make the rules of that place (as well as the laws they’re willing to follow: i.e. the ones that will get them into trouble if they don’t) and you’d better agree with them as you’re in their place.
Would you like to have somebody in your house behaving the way they feel like and thinking they can just because they threw a few bills at you? 
I didn’t think so.
So, water in drinking places.
From what I know, the law states something like: restaurants and bars can’t refuse to serve water (that’s tap water for the few clueless tourists that think Evian is the only water available in France) to their customers.
The keyword here is “customer”.
In other words, no, you can’t just go to a bar and drink only water. If you don’t order something else, you’re not a customer, so they can do whatever they want with you.
In the first example you gave me, it seems like the bartender didn’t notice that you didn’t order anything else. The waitress did.
But once you’re a customer, I’ve never seen anywhere people having trouble getting water (especially late at night, when you’re drunk and need to rehydrate… of course, it’s implied that you got drunk in that same bar, French people don’t do bar hopping much by the way)
All of that being said, I’ve never been to Nice -so I won’t bash the place too much- but I’ve never heard a good thing coming from this city. It is my understanding that people from Nice are not nice (lame pun, I know), and are even more snotty and unpleasant than Parisians.
Finally, yeah, “the French as sophisticated a-glass-of-wine-with-dinner-and-no-more drinkers” reputation is a big mystery too me. I really wonder where it comes from, I guess from the same people that misunderstand appearances and turn them into stereotypes, same as “French people drink wine in cafés.” However, I don’t really have much to add about this reputation. Except for the fact that it was always hilarious to go to wine tastings when I lived in the US, and see people trying to act all French there (that is acting all sophisticated, almost drinking their wine with the pinkie up and pretending to be something they were not) and in the meantime I’d just get drunk and have lots of fun in the process.
pixel Drinking water in French bars ?

15 Responses to “Drinking water in French bars ?”

  1. Interesting post.

    I can't help thinking that the solution for Jo is just to order the kind of water you pay for, like Perrier or something. Unless you're really broke, wouldn't that solve the problem?

  2. Dear Jo,

    It's because you don't know the magic word to order free water: Carafe (Kar-a-ff).

    Even when I order only a coffee at a bar, I also order a Carafe and the waiter brings it without any snotty remark.

  3. @Margaret: that could be an option, but maybe Jo is like me and would never pay for water.

    @Cynthia: I assume that Jo knows what a carafe is, however, one cannot order a carafe in a bar (that is at night, not in the afternoon). Also, they gave you one because you were already a customer. You're confusing the situation with the one were waiters try to trick clueless tourists into thinking that they have to order bottled water. And by the way, you know "carafe" is not a magic word, you can order tap water without knowing the word as long as you know you don't have to buy their overpriced Evian.

  4. Frenchman I'm not sure but I think that,from an old and still valid law, restaurants and bars (the old "auberges") are obliged to give you water if you ask for it . As well, the law says that every "commune" has to maintain a spot of potable water in an open and public place . I used to love this law when I was camping in nature .
    Of course in a bar you wouldn't bother and call the police to have the law respected . But I must say I often asked for water from the tap in some random places where I was just passing by, and I mostly got it, simply and quickly . The way you ask can make a difference, as I always expressed I was asking for a friendly favour, and you know in France this makes a hell of a difference . The places too have an importance . It's easier in a small village, and in popular estates of the cities of course .
    In touristic areas you always find the worst of the population, and greediness is wild alive . But if you go into real France, and ask the right way, you get nearly everything you want . Our new world friends shouldn't forget that France is a very ancient corpus, and some subtility in relationship is needed . When I go to Arabic countries, Japan or India, I'm aware of that, and France is somewhere between those cultures and New Zealand .

  5. From my experience in the US I'm pretty sure you can't just go into a bar and only order water here either (unless maybe if you're a designated driver with a group of other people ordering drinks). If you don't want something with alcohol you can typically get a soft drink or something.

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  7. @Jo:
    I feel for you but be thankful you're not in Denmark where they charge DKK 10 (almost US$2) for TAP water!

  8. This is very interesting….I think that a restaurant would want to take care of the customer so that you will come back again!

    Water should be served if asked for…

    Art by Karena

  9. Karena: restaurants never refuse to serve water, the topic was about bars. Or if you meant restaurants that try to trick clueless tourists into buying bottled water, well. First tourists don't make good regular customers, second, they're clueless, so that won't make a difference.

    Also, as explained here and on the topic that I linked, the whole "I'm gonna be a slave to my customer because I want their money/them to come back" is an American way of thinking. French store owners don't care about losing annoying/stupid customers.

  10. OH MY GOSH. I was outraged when I was in a club in Reims, and I ordered a drink and paid for admission. Thirsty from dancing, I wanted water and was denied!!! What the heck France??

  11. No, not "what the heck France??"
    First, who still says "what the heck" nowadays?

    Then, still not "what the hell France". I've seen gross generalizations, but the one you just made is near the top.
    So you should have said "what the hell that dude that ripped you off? and what the hell yourself, that let him rip you off or at least tried to."

    For the rest, I think the post answers your unjustified outrage.

  12. Hey, you started blogging again! I must have been in a real mood when I wrote that post, it's true that Nice gets you down sometimes! As someone said above, there's no reason to treat a tourist like a valued customer who's going to come back, and in Nice, everyone assumes you're a tourist. I now live in a different (less touristy) part of France, and I noticed when my parents recently visited that we got treated differently (more rudely) when we were together than when I go places here by myself or with French people. Okay, *maybe* you don't make a special effort to be nice to tourists, but do you really have to be actively nasty to them people?

    Just to clarify, I know you have to order drinks in bars, it was just the aggressiveness of it that pissed me off! Sure, give us a menu, but the way she came back and like stared at us and gave us another was annoying. I would have ordered a drink later on, but net result was we left and they got zero business. (And yeah, I know the word carafe, mdr :) .

    I also often defend the French customer service model to its detractors - not so much because I think it's great, but because I also believe, as the Frenchman said, that you have to play by the French rules when you live in their country. So I do try to do that, and not have the attitude, as you say, that I can do what I like and then throw a few bills at people (?!) (I also wouldn't actually have the balls to quote the law at them in real life even if there was one…)

    Anyway, a lot of fuss about a little bit of water, I did get over my annoyance eventually. Jo :)

  13. Hi Gwan/Jo,

    Yeah, as you said there's the whole "play by the local rules" but also, when you're a foreigner, you're a foreigner, that is people will rarely treat you like a "normal" person (unless you know them very well) whether you like it or not.
    The whole "us" vs "them" that is ingrained in humans for better and worse. So sure, sometimes, locals will treat you worse because you're a foreigner, but sometimes some things won't apply to you or affect you because you're not a local.

  14. Off the top of my head, I can't really think of anything that doesn't affect you as a foreigner once you start working (paying taxes, paying rent, dealing with fonctionnaires) etc. I suppose politics doesn't affect you in quite the same way when you don't have the right to vote, but obviously it still impacts you in the end.

    Anyway, obviously your man on the street can't tell that I'm a (more or less) productive member of French society without going through the rollcall of Questions That Are Actually Totally Reasonable But Which Piss Me Off Because I Get Asked Them All The Time, such as 'how long are you staying here?' (indefinitely) 'are you a student?' (no) and 'do you teach English?' (not any more, thank goodness). (Those last two are not things that are mutually exclusive with being a productive member of society, of course, they're just questions that annoy me from strangers at the busstop.)

    Anyway, I'll shut up! No more rants for a week, I promise :)

  15. And PS on the off-chance (ha) it's not apparent, I do love France and fully realise no-one has a gun to my head making me live here. If this was "Ask a New Zealander" I could bitch about my country being provincial and uncultured, but since it's about France, you get my France rants :D

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