Twice a year, Louise al-Hakkak would sit on her front porch in Burgundy, waiting for her sister Flora and dreading the moment of “la bise.” In this Franco-Iraqi family, only Flora enjoyed France’s traditional two-kiss greeting on the cheeks. For al-Hakkak and her father, “It was more a chore than anything else.”
But times have changed.
“COVID made us stop doing the bise,” said al-Hakkak, 23. “It’s a lot easier now. I don’t need to ask myself tons of questions about whether I should do it or not.”
In France, the bise is a long-standing tradition for greeting loved ones, or even strangers, that was upended by the coronavirus. Throughout the pandemic, French authorities have urged people to avoid physical contact to prevent the virus from spreading.
But now, with more than half of the French population at least partly vaccinated and most lockdown restrictions lifted, many are split over whether to go back to the way greetings used to be and questioning whether the bise was all that great to begin with.
“The pandemic made us realize that we had the choice to do the bise or not,” said Karine Boutin, a psychoanalyst based in the western French city of Poitiers. “The question to ask is whether the bise of tomorrow will be the same bise as yesterday, with the same intensity and the same spontaneity. We don’t know if this traumatic memory is here to stay.”
The agreed-upon number of kisses varies across French regions: Sometimes, the standard is two, but in the southern city of Montpellier, it is three, and it is just one in the northwestern region of Brittany. There are even “maps of bises” to help newcomers understand this confusing geography.
The bise has also become a political tool, symbolizing the closeness of an elected official with his fellow citizens. François Hollande, the Socialist former president, liked to call himself “the president of kisses.”
“Campaigning without being able to get close to people, it kind of kills the mood,” Rachida Dati, a conservative candidate in last year’s Paris mayoral race, said at the time.
But when the pandemic gripped the nation, it instilled a fear that the bise could pose a threat.
In an awareness video it posted in September, the French government used ominous music to underscore the new risks of previously routine actions, including greeting a colleague in front of a coffee machine.
“I rely on you to follow the instructions, and in particular these famous barrier gestures, against the virus,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address in the early days of the pandemic. “This means greeting without kissing or shaking hands to not spread the virus.”
People began using new forms of greeting, such as the “elbow bump” or the “footshake” that trended on TikTok and inspired some French ministers to follow suit.
Not everyone has missed the bise. Half of the respondents to a survey published in March by IFOP, a polling institute, said that they would stop greeting loved ones with it in the future, and 78% said that they would no longer use it to greet strangers.
Adrien Beaujean, 26, said the greetings that have replaced the cheek kiss suit him just fine.
“The best alternative is a smile,” said Beaujean, who lives in the eastern city of Strasbourg. “There is nothing more beautiful than a smile.”
But after months of being locked down and as people have been repeatedly urged to abide by social distancing, the lack of physical contact has worn some people down.
“Humans are naturally suffering from so-called skin hunger,” said Gautier Jardon, who conducted the IFOP poll, finding that the proportion of people who still did the bise with strangers had shrunk far more than it did for family members, friends and colleagues.
Greeting each other with a kiss means integrating personal space, said Boutin, the psychoanalyst. “With the prohibition of physical contact, it is as if we had completely annihilated what we were, as if we did not exist anymore,” she said. “We need human contact, if only to stay alive.”
Disease outbreaks have halted kissing customs before. In the mid-1300s, Europe was struck by the “Black Death,” a plague that killed 25 million to 30 million people, almost a third of its population.
At the time, the kiss was not a systematic form of greeting, according to Alain Montandon, a philosopher, in his book “Le Baiser.” But it did have significant sociopolitical importance.
“It had the value of a contract or a pact,” Montandon said.
As summer approached this year, and mask mandates were dropped, some grew restless with the lack of la bise — including, it seemed, Macron himself, who kissed two World War II veterans on the cheeks in June during a commemorative ceremony. (Macron was wearing a mask.)
But Pauline Gardet, 24, is hoping COVID will bring the bise era — and its many unwanted kisses — to an end.
“Typically, two days ago, a guy came very close to me, not leaving me any choice but to kiss him,” she said. “I found it very rude — the coronavirus is still there.”
Valérie Camus, 47, a director of human resources living in the Paris region, said dropping the bise with her work colleagues did not really matter.
“But I think it would be really sad if we were to abandon it,” she said, “at least in the family and friendship circles.”