Le cafe is in trouble. This week saw French president Emmanuel Macron stepping in with €150 million to rescue French cafe culture. La Parisien estimates that the number of cafes and bars in France has declined rapidly from 600,000 in 1960 to just over 34,000 today. Is the traditional French café at risk of extinction?
“To err is human. To loaf is Parisian.” wrote Victor Hugo and where better to do that than in the traditional French cafe? It may be a cliche, but think of France and nostalgic images of Les Deux Magots, starry skies and pavement cafés emerge. Hemingway, Lautrec, Stein and Van Gogh whiling away the hours in a smokey blue, Gitanes induced fug.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the morning unfold over un express. The ability to press pause, enjoy coffee, chat to a neighbour at the next table, eavesdrop or pass time with the waiter has always felt uniquely French to me. There is no disapproving ‘Move along now’ look. No pressure to drink up or unsubtle attempt to cajole you out of the door before you’ve had chance to taste your coffee here. The French get that you just can’t hurry coffee or the slice of life that accompanies it.
It’s an institution worth preserving. So much so that members of the French Bistro Association, supported by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago have been lobbying the United Nations’ cultural agency for recognition as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.” Hard to argue with. France without cafés is like a morning without coffee. Unthinkable.
Alcohol Consumption Has Halved
Increasing rents, dwindling profits, cheap supermarket booze, and a recent smoking ban along with a generation that doesn’t view drinking as a leisure activity have all contributed to the demise of the cafe. Alcohol consumption has more than halved in France since the 1970s. Societal changes, rural populations moving towards cities or, more tellingly, towards employment, have contributed to the demise of cafés in the French countryside. A shuttered bistro is a daily reminder of a dying community. The closure of village cafés carries a much deeper, political significance for some.
Macron, Cafés and Yellow Vests
Stroll along the wide boulevards of the 7th arrondissement where the National Assembly convenes and the bustling cafés are a far cry from the rest of France. In this affluent district of the capital, it’s all too easy to believe that all is well. Rural France might beg to differ.
The weekly Yellow vest protests across France, now in their 46th Act originated in these same rural communities as they rallied against fuel tax hikes. Now, the protestors have widened their remit to include protesting against government policy and the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor. As the Gilet jaunes prepare for a second winter, the future remains bleak for many. Shuttered cafés are a visible sign that communities outside major cities have been pushed to breaking point. Jean-Marc Borello, Macron ally and head of the company responsible for identifying suitable towns and villages to receive the fund told the AP “Clearly, the need to meet other people, to chat with other people, was also at the heart of those troubles.”
Like boarded up high streets and empty retail units in the UK, abandoned cafés in rural France have fuelled an uneasy sense that they belong to forgotten communities. Reminders of global recession, austerity, and a feeling of being left behind that just won’t go away. This is not about coffee. Outside of the capital, much of France feels ignored by central government, inflaming the tensions that have led to weekly protests by the Yellow Vests along with escalating violence on both sides. The French government are hoping that the €150 million will provide much needed life support to those villages. It may take more than that.