Riding some of the Tour de France route last summer under the pretext of route recons for this website’s stage previews was a pleasure. Cycling through rural France in the height of summer is always a joy.
Along the way there was a common theme of closed village cafés. Place after place so many had shut for good that there had to be a reason behind this trend and a mental note was made to explore what’s happening.
For the passing cyclist these closures are noticeable because they’re so visible. There are the very old closures, buildings with faded paint saying “café du village” on what has probably been someone’s house for decades but there are many recent examples of cafés, bars and bistrots with signs on the door saying fermeture definitive, “closed for good”, or windows that have been whitewashed or covered on the inside with newspaper. Riding past all this is melancholic at first as it vibes a place that has seen better days. Later it becomes frustrating as the chance to stop for a coffee and refill your bottles is gone and if there’s always a fountain or a tap somewhere it’s harder to meet the locals.
One of the riders in The Transcontinental blogged on how difficult it was to find food riding through France and that it got much easier once they’d moved onto another country. But never mind the ephemeral concerns of the passing cyclist, the closure of a village café is serious and significant for a village which may not have any other shops left, the last local meeting place is lost.
Decline: according to an article in Le Parisien there were 600,000 cafés and bars in 1960 and just 34,669 in 2015. By my maths this equates to 30 closures a day, every day, for the past 55 years. Another report says there were 200,000 in 1960 which is still eight closures a day on average and over the past decade if an average of 2,200 new establishments have opened per year, 2,700 have closed meaning an average net loss of 500 a year. It’s safe to suggest this loss will be rural which matters for the passing cyclist.
Why? This is a significant issue in France and there’s plenty of reading from magazine articles to industry analysis and government reports and statistical surveys. Here’s the summary take:
- many villages are declining as populations move away remote rural areas towards the cities and suburbs
- a smoking ban introduced in 2007 may satisfy many cyclists but it’s deterred core customers
- drink-driving is reducing meaning passing motorists are less likely to visit
- coffee is easier to make with machines at home and the workplace reducing the need to drop by the café
- annual alcohol consumption in France has almost halved since 1970
- once upon a time the café might have been the only place with a TV; more recently it was a place to read the newspaper but today most have a TV at home and many get their news online
- improved food hygiene standards have required investment that some cafés haven’t been able to meet
- bakeries supply sandwiches and drinks these days meaning the village bistrot no longer has a monopoly on fast food and snacks
- employing kitchen staff is relatively expensive and selling dishes for €5-10 makes it hard to recoup the money
- finally a personal observation that many places are old with dusty interiors and if they’re struggling they stuck, unable to make money to invest in more comfortable or cheery interiors
There’s no single factor here, just a series of societal changes that have undone what was surely never a lucrative venture in the first place. Reading some of these factors the decline doesn’t sound so disastrous if some cafés were smoke-filled hubs that relied on passing trade from drink drivers while poorly-paid staff served up unhygienic dishes.
Still they serve a role and the surviving establishments are sometimes the only shop in a village. 19th century writer Honoré de Balzac, himself a caffeine fiend, praised the café as the “people’s parliament”. That might just hold in a city but the idea of a village café as some rural debating forum maybe be too lofty sometimes but it can still be a hub, a meeting point. The trend seems inexorable but some are trying to fight back with new ways to make them central to village life such as operating as a parcel collection point, selling bread or doubling as tourist office.
Every rouleur and grimpeur needs to stop and what could be better than sitting on the terrace of a village café in France and watching the world go by as you take a break? Only easier said than done these days as the persistent trend of closures across France means fewer chances to be a zingeur as you order a drink or snack over the zinc counter. There’s no single factor here, instead it’s the culmination of several socio-economic trends and these look set to continue. Rural desertification, new regulations on the sale of tobacco and more efforts to reduce drink-driving all suggest more cafés will close. The silver lining inside this is potentially safer roads for the cyclist.