France Invests Millions to Stop Cafés from Going Extinct
President Emmanuel Macron is backing a plan to save and revive the nation's dwindling dining and meeting places.
I'm in a couple of travel-themed groups on Facebook, and most of them are just daily sources of irritation. People use them to ask easily Google-able questions about topics like public transport, and it never fails, someone posts the same already answered question every single day. If I had a buck for every time "What are the best travel shoes?" was asked I could buy a dozen different pairs of travel shoes.
A few days ago, someone asked frequent travelers to share which destination they were the most underwhelmed by, and the resulting comment thread should be archived as the ultimate illustration of first-world problems. ("I thought the beaches at the all-inclusive resort would be more beautiful," was a recurring theme.) One woman responded that she hadn't been wowed by France because none of the cafés looked the way that she'd imagined they would.
I have no idea what kind of baguette-carrying, stripe-wearing, chain-smoking mimes she thought would be sitting in those cafés, but many of those establishments are loaded with character and charm—and they also don't exist for the entertainment of temporary visitors. Apparently French President Emmanuel Macron also believes in those cafés. According to the Associated Press, Macron has recently launched a €150 million ($165 million) plan to save some 1,000 of them.
As iconic as the idea of a cozy French café is—despite what some random person says on social media—it's also becoming an endangered species. In the past 50 years, the number of cafés scattered throughout the country has fallen from 200,000 to just 40,000, which has left some small towns with few, if any, places to eat, drink, and socialize with each other.
"A village like this without a bar is dead,” one resident of the now-caféless village of Port-Brillet said. "People don’t see each other anymore, there’s less bustle, the other traders feel it. The bar brought people to the village.”
In addition to helping some cafés that are still hanging on, the plan also includes funds to reopen some recently shuttered spots that, again, are in less populated locations. One high-profile businessman even thinks that bringing the cafés back might—might—be a factor in preventing some rural residents from joining (or rejoining) the "yellow vest" protests that have flared up across the country since last fall.
"Clearly, the need to meet other people, to chat with other people, was also at the heart of those troubles,” Jean-Marc Borello told the AP. (Borello's nonprofit Groupe SOS is helping to decide which towns might get a new or newly reopened café; he hopes that the first one will be christened before the end of the year.)
This kind of cultural erosion isn't unique to French villages: it's also happened to some of New York City's diners. In 2016, the New York Times reported that the number of diners in the five boroughs had fallen by half, because of challenges that range from gentrification and ever-increasing rents to the ongoing, you know, Starbucks-ification of the city.
But the result of losing those spaces is the same on Broadway as it is in Port-Brillet. "The coffee shop orients us here, in this city and not another,” author and Jeremiah Moss told the Times. “If we are regulars, we become known, connected, to a network of people who remain over the span of years, even decades. In the anonymous city, these ties can be lifesavers, especially for the elderly, the poor, the marginal, but also for all of us. Without them, the city becomes evermore fragmented, disorienting and unrecognizable."
That's not what any resident wants to see, not in their tiny Parisian village, and not in their crowded metropolitan borough.