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06.03.2020 Europe

Will French kissing be the latest victim of the coronavirus?

By David Roe - RFI
Ludovic MARIN / AFP
LISTEN MAR 6, 2020
Ludovic MARIN / AFP

While media outlets across the globe obsess about the coronavirus, the number of victims continues to rise. So far, there have been 96,778 confirmed cases and 3,308 deaths. There could be another victim, though - it could also see the end of the French bise, or kiss, which anyone who has visited France will be familiar with.

To be clear, la bise is an everyday greeting whereby people plant a chaste little kiss on either cheek once, twice, thrice or even four times, depending on how well the two people are acquainted. It applies equally to men greeting women, women greeting men, men greeting men, or women greeting women.

La Bise in history
However, the rampant spread of the coronavirus could be the end of it. Although the current habit re-emerged in France in the 19th century, it has a much longer history than that and was practiced in France from the time of the Romans until the Black Death – another disease a lot more virulent than the coronavirus - which killed off an estimated 40% of the European population and an estimated 50000 to 80000 of the 200 000 inhabitants of Paris at that time.

But back to this century and back to the French parliament, the National Assembly. Last week, the president of the Assembly reported that a member of parliament who had recently returned from China, but who was not ill, had stayed at home for 14 days – quarantined, we were told.

Later, last Saturday, the death knell of the la bise sounded. A dedicated meeting in the morning of the Bureau of the Assembly, its governing council, outlined – again – some of the normal precautions people should be taking, among those precautions, an end to kissing.

While the council frowned on hand-shaking and asked people to use hydro-alcoholic gel, the demonization of la bise, was a blow to French culture and sense of well-being. Is nothing sacred? Is nothing to be spared?

The requests, though, make sense. At a news conference the French minister of health, Olivier Véran, discussed the government's measures against the disease's spread, observing that “the smallest gestures offer the greatest protection.” Véran urged the French to avoid shaking hands with others. But la bise?

What to do without la bise
Véran replied that he had already been asked this question. After a pause, he added that the French should, for now, ban la bise.

Since then, newspapers have been filled with advice on how to replace kissing on the cheek, which is also a common formality at work.

Etiquette expert Philippe Lichtfus, who has been widely cited, says simply looking into a person's eyes can suffice as a greeting.

And while all this may be obvious for French people, for foreigners it's a minefield. Four years ago British comedian Paul Taylor that took a satirical look at la bise published a humorous video making fun of this very "Frenchy" mania

Published on the YouTube channel of his collective French Fried he recounts his embarrassment when he finds himself for the first time in front of a woman ("Do I shake her hand? Do I give her a kiss?"),

Humour aside, it does touch on the confusion of many foreigners when confronted with a French peck on the cheek. Now, with the added pressure of a possibly contagious – if not embarrassing situation - it is likely that la bise is in for a rough few months.

La Bise abroad
France is not the only country that is suffering. Swiss people have also been advised by Switzerland's health minister, Alain Berset, to drop the everyday greeting of kissing each other on the cheeks, to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

In Switzerland, just as in neighboring France, it is common for women and people of opposite sexes to greet each other with alternating kisses on both cheeks. The Swiss version generally involves an asymmetrical three in total, in contrast to the two more usual for la bise across the border.

“We know that keeping one's distance socially is the best way to slow the spread of the virus. That is why renouncing greeting kisses is a measure that should be seriously taken into consideration,” Berset told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper, when asked if he was advising against the greeting.

Globally, there are other restrictions too. Governments everywhere are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus.

Japan will quarantine all arrivals from China and South Korea for two weeks, the Yomiuri daily reported, without specifying when the measures will take effect.

Saudi Arabia has suspended the year-round Islamic "umrah" pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.

New measures in Italy -- where 11 towns with 50,000 have been under quarantine -- include a month-long nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, and advising people to avoid greetings like kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy could contain the outbreak for now, but if there is "exponential growth, not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation"

Media reports in Italy said people will be advised to stay at least a metre (three feet) apart and to avoid crowded places whenever possible, and notably to avoid the traditional greetings of kissing on the cheeks or shaking hands.

Exhibits and shows are set to be rescheduled -- a measure that will be especially painful for Italy's already hard-hit hotel and restaurant industry.

As for la Bise, to paraphrase Laurence Sterne in Tristan Shandy: 'Alas poor Bise'

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