Yesterday I had to go pick up a package from the post office, which is conveniently right around the corner and open till 7 p.m.
When I got there, a little plump old lady with a scarf, obviously a foreigner by the way she was rrrolling her rrrs, was berating the postier behind the counter. "Your colleague just walked off and left me standing!" she said, pointing toward the postal bank counter (in France as in many other countries, the post office is a bank, often the only one poorer citizens have access to).
"He had to absent himself for some minutes, Madame," said the busy postier, dealing with a long line of other people. But she didn't go away and raised her voice.
"It's not correct to keep people waiting for no reason!" she said. "It's been 15 minutes already!" She launched into a tirade of abuse. The postierlost his temper.
"You should go home, Madame, till you can calm down."
This had the predictable effect of making her angrier. "You all don't care about the public! You are all good for rrrrien!
Just then, an elegant-looking older French woman walked through the door from the street and without inquiring into the matter, said loudly to the unhappy woman, "Rentrez chez vous! Vous n'êtes pas chez vous ici!"
There was a collective gasp as every single person in the room froze. Rentrez chez vous [Go back where you belong] is pretty much a racist phrase in France, used against people from other countries, but especially poorer ones.
"Oui! Rentrez chez vous!" said the postier. "We are in France here."
"On n'est pas en Afrique!" the Frenchwoman pursued.
The unhappy woman rushed outside. She didn't go away, but stayed just by the glass door, muttering and glaring through the window.
I could see from the discomfort level of other customers in line that most of them disapproved of what had just happened. But none of us said anything. Probably some of them were foreigners too.
After a while the collègue came back and said to the postier, "I heard a lot of yelling?"
"A customer, you know, that old Spanish woman, blew up," said the postier. "But it didn't bother me." But his hands were still trembling.