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 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?
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