French cafe culture struggles to stay alive | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 14.08.2009
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French cafe culture struggles to stay alive

Sitting in a cafe in France is part of every tourist cliche. But with locals doing that less and less and the number of cafes dwindling at a rapid pace, is French cafe culture in danger of dying out?

Cafe on the Champs Elysees in Paris

Experts say French cafes need to move with the times

In 1960, there were about 200,000 cafes across France. Fifty years later, there are only around 40,000 left and, according to industry statistics, two cafes go out of business every day.

On a sunny day in Paris, everything still appears normal. At Le Grand Palais, a cafe in Paris's swanky eighth district, the terraces are full with tourists sipping lemonade, office types having lunch, and people sitting quietly on their own, reading as they take in the warm weather.

Across town at Le Belair in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, though, there's a much different scene. Just before lunch, there are only two customers at the bar. It's the kind of sparsely-decorated one-room cafe with a bar that can be found in working-class neighborhoods all around the country. Owner Zahir Idris says business is extremely slow these days.

"With the smoking ban and the way the police are cracking down on alcohol at the wheel, our sales have been halved," he says. "Just look around. Before lunch there used to be people having cocktails. Now there is almost no one. In the good days, we used to serve 40 or 50 lunches. Now we barely serve 10 lunches a day. How can we make any money like that?"

Idris says he's just barely able to stay open and that he's often struggling to pay the bills. The French government recently lowered the sales tax on all non-alcoholic products sold in cafes. But Idris says it won't make much difference to him as his sales are already so low.

His plight is repeated at cafes all around France. Traditional cafes and bars are struggling and many have to close. The total number of French cafes is down five-fold since 1960. And it's quite common to see boarded-up cafes that will never open again, especially in small towns.

Owners need to move with the times

Bernard Quartier, president of the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques, doesn't believe the trend is the result of new smoking or drink driving legislation. He says cafe owners simply haven't been keeping up with the times.

"I think cafes are out of sync with society." he says. "They were in sync during the 1950s, but they aren't anymore. A cafe has to be clean. The coffee has to be good. In many cases the coffee isn't good. The beer has to be good. And you have to be able to order non-alcoholic drinks, like fresh-squeezed orange juice or smoothies. You have to be able to find a newspaper in a cafe, or find a television where sporting events are broadcast. There has to be something to draw people."

Quartier also argues that service needs to improve; customers want to be welcomed with a smile and use spotless restrooms. He adds that cafe owners who offer customers what they want are doing well, but that those who've kept the same tired furniture and focus almost exclusively on alcohol are in trouble.

People sit in a French cafe

Aside from good coffee, cafes need to offer customers a concept, Quartier says

Quartier himself has owned eight different cafes, starting with the first one he bought at age 23. Today, he's visiting his newest venture: an Italian-themed cafe in Paris's upscale seventh district. The current owner is selling because the business isn't making enough money.

Quartier says he plans to reduce prices and serve food and drink from his home region, the Loire Valley. He also wants to organize art shows and literary evenings here to draw people. His focus isn't just coffee. He has a whole concept in mind.

Additional threat from the Internet

While diversifying a cafe's offerings may certainly be good advice, there appear to be other trends at work adding to the demise of cafe culture. Previous generations of cafe owners didn't have to compete with social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Linked in, for example. These sites give people the impression they're socializing from the comfort of their own homes, making it unnecessary to venture out to a cafe. Christine Pujol, the head of UMIH, an industry group that represents France's cafes and restaurants, says the disappearance of cafe culture is worrying on a broader level.

"We often say that cafes are a part of France's national heritage - from a social, cultural and even architectural perspective," Pujol says. "It's very saddening to think that these places could disappear and that they will stop playing the social role they have been playing for so long."

The French writer Honore de Balzac once said that cafes are the parliament of the people. This is still true to a certain extent. Political parties sometimes organize public gatherings in cafes and it's the place to go when meeting up with someone far from home. But if the current trend continues, there's a risk France's cafe culture could turn into something of a relic. Instead of finding one on almost every corner, as is the case today, they'd be limited to tourist sites.

Genevieve Oger (dc)
Editor: Helen Seeney

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