Is the Rural French Café Dying Out?

Café at Limogne on market day

Café at Limogne on market day

The village café-bar is a typically French institution, just as the pub is essentially British. Our nostalgic vision of French rural life places the café (often doubling as a restaurant) at the heart of the village, along with the church, the school, the mairie, the boulangerie and the épicerie. But a survey by pollsters Ifop shows that the local café is increasingly a thing of the past.

I haven’t always found French cafés terribly welcoming. They are not exactly bastions of feminism. I remember some uncomfortable experiences on holiday 25 years or so ago, when the belote-playing, Pastis-drinking customers of the village café looked askance at the only woman (apart from la patronne behind the bar, who was invariably treated with respect).

Things have changed since then, of course, especially in the larger towns and villages. I no longer feel so reticent about entering a French café.

Historical role of cafés

Of the people Ifop polled, 94% felt that cafés played a very, or quite, important social role 20 years ago; 60% thought they do today. 31% don’t have a local café, and 12% had experienced the closure of the last one in their village.

You can make statistics say almost anything you like. And the Ifop sample size was only 1,209 people. Even so, other research has shown that in the early 1960s, around 600,000 cafes existed in France. By 2014 that number had dropped by 94% to around 34,500. And c. 70% of French communes don’t have a café. It’s hard to argue with those numbers.

Why the decline?

Why is the café disappearing? Explanations proposed include rural depopulation, the ban on smoking and the rising cost of drinks. I’d like to advance an additional reason, linked to the rural exodus: many rural café-restaurants were once family owned and run. But a lot of people don’t want to work in the family café anymore and are going elsewhere to find jobs. Once you have to start employing people, running a business in France becomes a whole different ball game.

The Ifop report puts the decline of the café in the context of what it calls the “marginalisation” of rural areas. Of the people polled, 31% didn’t have a boulangerie, 31% didn’t have a café and 42% didn’t have an épicerie. They overwhelmingly felt that, in their area, the social fabric has weakened, local services and shops are declining and the government doesn’t care.

In our village, the picture is mixed, but there were more shops when we first moved here 18 ½ years ago. The two cafés still appear to be going strong, but one that opened and closed several times now seems to be definitively closed. Other, smaller villages have very little in the way of shops or cafés and you can go for miles in places before you find them. The car and the advent of supermarkets and out-of-town superstores have had an effect.

The future?

The solution? There are no easy ones. The majority of people polled who didn’t have a café in their village would like to see one open. But they felt that cafés needed to diversify in order to remain open, e.g. by becoming collection points for parcels or mini tourist offices. They also thought the commune should subsidise or even buy a café for the benefit of the local people – not always realistic in the face of increasingly restricted budgets.

Maybe the pendulum will swing back one day. Or has it already gone too far?

You might also like:

The Ups and Downs of Life in La France Profonde
Things I didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives
Shopping in France #4: local shops vs supermarkets

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

 

Advertisements

About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
This entry was posted in Food/drink/recipes, French life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Is the Rural French Café Dying Out?

  1. Pingback: Un café, s’il vous plaît | Life on La Lune

  2. Karra Bretonne says:

    I would imagine with the Paris city problems of terrorists attacks, young people maybe thinking of going back rural and do their own things and live another way of life than life in Paris. The world is changing. Though we think that people are leaving rural life, I think more people are thinking or going back and living the vintage lifestyle. The world is now tired of technology. People are realising that a peaceful life, a small job, a normal income in the village or rural areas, is the perfect life anyone would want.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      A number of people are moving back to the French countryside for a simpler and more secure lifestyle than they get in the city. I certainly know which I prefer. So, as you imply, the pendulum might swing back.

      Like

  3. Paul Diamond says:

    Our village (of around 2,000) in the eastern Dordogne has 5 or 6 cafes…at least in the summer. I believe most of them close or reduce opening times in the winter, except for the largest one in the center of the village which is open year round.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Inevitably, cafés have more trade in the summer, especially in tourist spots. Some of the tourist honeypots around here are heaving in summer and virtually empty in winter. So you can’t blame the owners if they close down in winter and do something else. It’s a perennial problem, but maybe there are solutions in diversifying and – dare I say it – being more customer focused.

      Like

  4. A seemingly endless debate around this topic! When we bought our holiday home in 1990 in the village that became our retirement home, there was one bar. Friends told us there had been a second one a few years earlier. That bar was only used by a few elderly gents who walked there. When the couple died their children sold the building. After a few hiccups it is now being run as a mostly lunchtime restaurant but not a bar, sadly. I think drink driving laws sounded the death knell for pubs and bars in both uk and france although i have no desire to see drivers drinking again. The bar in our nearest market town was bought a few years back by a couple of guys who wrought a fabulous makeover, introduced cocktails and, most amazing of all, stay open in the evenings! With free wifi, comfier seats and now with added tabac, business seems to be booming. Back in our own village, the council tried to keep a subsidised epicerie going but three different ‘locateurs’ couldn’t make a decent living from it. Now it is a mix of depot vente, wifi cafe and coin poste but still seems to only hang on by its fingertips. We are a kilometer and a half away from a small town with a leclerc and a lidl which says it all. As osyth says, to keep it, use it but habits and lifestyles change. One initiative a nearby village is trying is an associative cafe for its residents. Way to go?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I think it’s difficult making a living with any small service business in rural France these days. But the example you quote about the bar that had a makeover is probably the way to go.
      It’s also a question of how far-seeing the commune is. In one village near us (total population 500) the maire, who sadly died just over a year ago, said when he was elected that the village would have a proper médiathèque, a medical centre, a weekly market and a café. And it now has all four. The challenge is keeping all this going.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. They have been in need of adapting for a very long time, and those that don’t will eventually disappear. Yes, there are their regulars who pop in for that early morning coffee, usually men and they are often intimidating and unwelcoming to women, however to survive, they need to attract a wider clientele, I have noticed new little cafes opening that are more service oriented, have better coffee, actually talk to customers about what they like (they were trying out different milk types in the coffee) and offering different food options.

    I don’t think the cafes are going to disappear, younger people are seeing the opportunities that others have refused to acknowledge, and slowly things are beginning to change, for the better. In the short term, it may appear they are in decline, but I think we are in a transition period.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, they need to diversify in order to survive and that was one of the messages from the research I quoted. Interestingly, one of the local cafés that was least welcoming to women and catered mainly to the hunting and fishing crowd closed recently…
      The ones that continue will be those that reinvent themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. MarinaSofia says:

    We live on the border, close to a city, and full of frontaliers, so there is an exotic mix of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian etc. restaurants, but few proper cafés (a couple of bars, mainly for gambling purposes, it seems to me). The boulangerie does have a few tables and there is a bar next to it as well, and they always seem to be full, but they lack atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      In and close to the cities and larger towns, I’m sure there’s a more eclectic mix of customers. Around here, quite a lot of foreigners moved in during the early 2000s and, while that’s not always a good thing, it has helped to keep some of these establishments open.

      Like

  7. Life on la Lune, you are absolutely right ! I live in France, 20 km from the Belgian border and I often walk in France and in Belgium. The country is equally beautiful on both sides. However, if I want to have a drink, and draw a couple of draft cartoons, with my co-walkers I will easily find a friendly bar in Belgium while I will hardly find any bar in France and if I find one, there’s a chance that it is not very friendly. Why the difference, 40 km away, and how to correct this ? This being said, I know exceptions in both directions ! Many thanks, Life on la Lune !

    Like

  8. Osyth says:

    It is an inarguable fact that the café/bar is in decline And its a sad fact. It’s a sad fact that all those little business’s in France are declining and like the British pub we all want one but we probably won’t support it. For me, the only way is to do my little bit so I do go to both the bars (one a tabac the other a sort of café but she can seldom be bothered to make any food) but not the third because it is absolutely the domain of hunty/fishy men. I go with The Bean and they think I’m weird but that’s just comme ça. There’s nought else I can do but warn (like the sooth to Julius on the Ides of March) beware. Beware because once it’s gone, it’s gone. And that would be very very sad. Great post. Touched me greatly 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      As another reader commented, they don’t always do themselves any favours by attracting only the hunting and fishing crowd, who tend not to welcome women on their territory. Our local cafés, fortunately, are generally not like that. But many are struggling.

      Liked by 1 person

I love to hear from my blog's readers, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s