Why Have So Many French Cafés Closed?

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.

Alcohol consumption has almost halved in France since 1970 (source)

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.

At least the plane tree is still standing

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.

A sight for sore legs

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.

Photos via Flickr’s creative commons. Credits to Flickr’s Mosniak Pallier , Flickr’s Pef, Flickr’s Johnseb and Flickr’s jmenj.

71 thoughts on “Why Have So Many French Cafés Closed?”

  1. Another excellent off the norm topic INRNG.

    I would add one more observation to your list. Despite there being an abundance of cafe’s in our area, my French club has only ever stopped once at a cafe, and that was when drinks were on the club president ! Otherwise, bottles are filled up at village/town fountains. My conclusion is that in general the French have become a little more discerning where they spend their money. It was probably ever thus !

    Two hats ordered.

    • Coffee stops on group or training rides are definitely a more anglo thing. In France it’s usually a fountain or some other source of water – tip: cemeteries often have it, presumably so people can water flowers – and in Italy it’s rare too but can happen in a café for an espresso, the price to pay so that the barman fills up your bottles.

      • The expat group ride in Shanghai has a cafe stop. Well, that community is more Anglo than continental plus there’s no water fountain in China.

      • +1 cemetery water source. Even here in swampy Germany, water can be a challenge to get and thanks to Murphy’s Law, impossible when your life depends on it! The trick of the cemetery has saved me multiple times.

        To your causation bullet points I would also add explosion of private automobile ownership from 158 p/1000 pp in 1960 to 578 in 2014. Not just specific to France but this phenomenon has ripped the heart out of many a villages’ old pedestrian commercial areas the world over.

  2. Wow, by far the saddest post I’ve read on Inring. I lived in Italy from 81-96, and spent many summers riding in France. Now in the US, I no longer have frequent contact with French countryside, but this article destroys a vision I had of a very special time in a special place. To see it disappearing truely makes me yearn for a time that will probably never return. The French Cafe and the Italian Bar are cultural institutions, and their decline equates to a cultural crisis for France. Losing the social dynamic that the locales enabled is not progress, but takes away important points of social interaction. Being to stop on a ride a refuel, was a convience, but also allowed an intimate view of the town you were passing through, where good food and conversation was readily had.

  3. Cycling from the coast to Paris last August,many rural villages shut down for the annual holiday.
    Another factor may be the excellent coffee and sandwiches to be found in the boulangeries today,not something in the past,but I don’t doubt the general drift.
    Its the same here with pub closures.
    On the plus side,the ones that are left are generally good.And you can still marvel at the range of tobacco products still on sale!

  4. The figures are rather worse than your math indicates. It’s either 28 closures/day, every day for 55 years if the 600,000 estimate for 1960 is correct, or 8 closures/day if there were nearer to 200,000 in 1960. What a shame if this traditional element of village life is in terminal decline. Perhaps if more of them had been run like Cafe Rene….!

  5. I did the Raid Pyrenean about 20 years ago and one had to stop at cafe checkpoints every so often to get your card stamped to make it official. I wonder if that’s changed now which would be a shame. I remember a chocolat chaud at one that hit the spot after descending some col in the cold rain.

    • There are still plenty of places for this but it’s noticeable that in a small town, the kind of checkpoint place I’d image, some of the outlets have gone. It’s more in the villages that the loss is noticed, the last place left open has closed.

      • I remember a very grumpy lady in a cafe at the top of Col d’Iseran (or was it Izoard?) stamping people’s “tampon” for the Raid Alpine. I wouldn’t lament her going out of business to be honest. The number of country houses for sale to the foreign investor/lifestyle buyer shows that the countryside is just emptying out. I suspect that many European countries won’t realise the true value of a sense of local community until it’s too late.

        A bit off topic but I can remember staying somewhere near Bardonnecchia in Italy where you’d ride over the border into France for the bread and croissant but most definitely not the coffee. It was staggering how two shops/cafes so close to each other on either side of the border could be so good at one thing and so bad at the other!

        • Tricky Dicky – I have thought about this topic forever and marvelled at this cross-border conundrum. I don’t understand how a country that shares a border with Italy (one of the world’s greatest proponents of coffee) and one whose culture is obsessed with good food can have such rubbish coffee. On the flip side, how can a country that shares a border with France and which also obsesses about food have comparatively average bread (don’t get me wrong, Italian bread is very good but the French put them in the shade in this department)? We aren’t talking about overly complicated things here either. This is food of the common people not lobster thermidor. What about the English? Why didn’t the frequency of their travel to the continent over the centuries not inspire them to lift the quality of their own cuisine (acknowledging their gains in recent times)? After all, the English can be considered among the region’s ‘great appreciators’. I think my French brother-in-law answered it best when he said that it is a combination of cultural arrogance and (in some cases) lack of travel. Arrogance perhaps better expressed as cultural confidence and a belief that they way they do things is the best and cannot be bettered. Maybe it isn’t just national borders – across Italy you will get people telling you that the only way to make pasta pomodoro is the way they cook it in their village while a nonna in the next village will advocate another method that is the “only way” to make the tomato sauce. As perplexing this is from a “new world” perspective , these differences are ultimately a good thing and what makes Europe so intriguing – if each country did things the same way and cooked the same food it would make it that little bit less so.

      • I rode for an amateur cycling team in Normandy for two seasons in the 70’s and I noticed that all the small cafe’s I visited seemed to have an older clientele. There were, of course, exceptions, especially in the larger towns. I asked around and a local politician (his son was a competitive cyclist too) let me know a possible answer. After the Great War and following WW2 the French Government would give licenses for tobacco and liquor to Veterans and their families, this was extended after the Second World War to include families who were jobless and homeless. It was kind of an economic safety net, some countries like Spain allow certain jobs to be carried out by disabled, like the blind ticket sellers for the National lottery, ONCE. in France , it was a license for liquor or tobacco. Since then all the WW1 licenses have passed and the French Government allowed some family decedents to carry the license for a period of time afterwards. As you no doubt notice. most of the WW@ veterans are passing also, The last major war the French fought in in Vietnam, are also reaching an age were they are retiring. I am not even sure that the French Government has this special program anymore as after WW2 the French Government did not have the money to offer vets or war refugees any money, but they do now and I think the bars are closing down as a result of the diminishing veterans and the need for the cafe, bars and country boite, and a new culture, as described in the article and some of the other other commenters on this thread, have taken hold and as the old village cafe is closed, and so too, is that way of life.

  6. “drink-driving is reducing meaning passing motorists are less likely to visit”

    Surely the other way round? Or at least, an increased focus on the perils of drink driving meaning that motorists are less likely to stop, which then has the (intended) consequence of a reduction in drink driving, and the (unintended) consequence of reduced viability for cafes?


  7. Nice picture at the end but hardly a “village” cafe as that is the cafe at the top of Col de la Croix de Fer. Amazing climb especially up from Bourg d’Oisans (base of Alpe d’Huez) had the best tasting Coke ever after climbing 28k.

  8. Surely a generational thing also? Young people no longer hang out in cafes/bars like they used to and the generation that did are getting too old/dying off.
    Seems to be better in Belgium – maybe the size (km²) of France is too big to sustain so many cafes.

  9. People just sleep in thier villages after a day’s work and don’t know anyone. The original populations are dispersed and the new ones don’t care. The only comfort for nostalgics like me is to enjoy the faded hand -painted signs and publicity for no longer existant local breweries (here: Amos, Basse Yutz…)

    Another kind of French café culture also gone is that associated with heavy industry where the workers would have a drink after and even before thier shifts! You will see many traces at the finish of TdF 2017 stage 3 in Longwy, once the heart of the French iron ore mining and steel industry.

  10. Quelle horreur. First, Trump wins US Presidency and then things get even worse — French cafes closing down. That is truly sad and yes, there is a parallel. In the U.S. we have just had the fundamental values of inclusiveness and honesty and respect for others destroyed by a man who cares only for himself. In France, as you so thoughtfully noted, the cafes are core the the very culture of France. It’s a dark time and even more reason to ride a bike.

    • Where you see tragedy, I see an opportunity. Instead of injecting politics into the discussion on a fantastic cycling website, you could move to France and revitalize a French cafe. Dare I say, you could make French cafes great again?

  11. Whilst the rural idyll may seem just that to the passing visitor, the harsh reality is that most jobs are of the minimum wage variety.
    I can’t speak for France, but you can still go to parts of the UK where this is true.

  12. Most French cafes I have been to in Brittany have rubbish coffee yet you go to supermarkets and the have lots more f choice of coffee machines and good quality coffee, why go to a cafe to drink coffee that costs more and tastes worse than what you can make at home?

    Ps. Cafes I have been to in the alps are generally nicer but you do pay for it.

    • Matt – I think you nailed it! I don’t much get to France these days but I remember the French as being kind of “reluctant capitalists” in the way they rant about the loss of the boulangerie, patisserie and local bar as attacks on their culture, but have no issues about driving out to the hypermarche to buy cheap (maybe better, but not in my experience) products in a self-service, grab and go manner and then fuel up the car with cheap gas on their way out. I’ll never understand why bars in France, with the same Italian-made espresso machines found in bars all over Italy, simply can NOT make a decent espresso. But they can’t boil pasta properly either, so?
      Grazie Dio this is not the case in Italy where the local bars everywhere we go seem to thrive and plenty of cyclists (including natives) stop there for breaks along the road while cycling. And never a Starbucks to be found 🙂

      • Living in Nice, I get a little experience of both countries, and you’re right, Larry. I only ever drink coffee east of Ventimillia. But, on the other hand, why do the French have the monopoly on good bread?

        • + 1 , side note, in parts of california a lot of cafes make you either take your cycling shoes off or they provide booties to go over them to preserve their floors!

          I wish that they would check for chain ring grease on calves and not allow those people in!

      • +1 I’ve never understand why the coffee quality deteoriates so much when you cross the border into France. I’m also amazed that the Italian bars keep going. The tiny village my dad is from has two bars surviving by selling espresso for less than a euro.

        Rooto-the Italians do very good bread as well!

        • No question about the French and bread – they know what they’re doing! Italian’s do as well and there are still plenty of places to buy it. But sadly the 100% butter pastry the French do so well was getting harder and harder to find there even years ago, while Italian pasticcerie still turn out good stuff in general, though perhaps not up to what I remember as the best of French patisserie?

        • The always-excellent The Cycling Podcast (auditory equivalent of Inrng) did an episode on the coffee/café culture. Apparently when Italy switched from Lira to the Euro many low-cost items leapt in price, including the espresso, which went up to 1 euro and was met with outrage. This appears to have become a psychological barrier and espressos haven’t increased in price in the intervening years.

          Made my first trip to Italy this summer, and even in ‘upmarket’ cafes in Alpine/Dolomite resorts an espresso was maybe E 1.20. Our hotel had a café and it was popular with locals in the morning, most of them older men in clothing indicative of manual work, and most of them having an alcoholic start to the day.

          We’ll be returning there in 2017 to ride the roads we missed out.

        • +1 I’m horribly biased now, but 20+ years ago we could have just as easily started CycleFrance as CycleItalia as my wife spoke both languages and we’d enjoyed a decade helping to produce challenging cycling tours in both countries.
          We chose to become CycleITALIA because, as you wrote “Nothing beats Italy for a cyclist”.
          I chuckle at how Girona has become so popular now that we know the real reason all those US pros went there was more for the easy availability of banned substances than the great training, etc. We’ve had clients go there on vacations organized by our competitors, but when they get to Italy with us, mostly what we hear is how much better pretty-much-everything is in comparison.

          • I think every single rider on the Transcontinental was massively grateful to enter Italy. Partly because it meant the savage credit card abuse of Switzerland was over, but mostly for the coffee, pasta and gelato. The Dolomites are a beautiful place to ride a bike.

    • Yup – I think I could randomly throw a rock in the air in Melbourne and it would hit somebody able to make a better coffee than I’ve ever had in France. Cafes abound wherever people can and do make good coffee.

      • please write that tale, be really interested to hear it. France is suffering the same travails Britain was facing going into the 70’s/80’s/90’s. Where I’m to in the Mayenne, its a rural/poor area, which translates to no money around. Sound to simple?People been struggling against Desserte Rurale for along time. When I’m out riding all day, I’ve bookmarked the towns/villages where I can fill a bottle or buy a pain raison to get meself home. It’s down to us to make the change spend a euro/pound/dollar when you can

  13. I’m surprised that smoking affected cafes so much. In Canada, we had earlier heard the same “smoking bans are bad for business” line but the effect on businesses never materialized.

    In fact, it may have had the opposite effect, since non-smokers could now frequent the same establishments without fear of the whiff of smoke in the air.

    • That’s probably true in the city but outside a lot of cafés in villages are “bar tabacs”, ie they have a permit to sell cigarettes which leads to the confusion of people walking in to buy cigarettes only to walk out to smoke them; now there’s pressure to reduce cigarette sales which hits the sales for this.

    • The same thing has happened in cities in the US that I have lived in where smoking bans have been enacted. The majority of bars and restaurants have thrived now that more customers are comfortable coming in and lingering longer.

      Is smoking really so much more prevalent in Europe?

  14. Could there be more reasons?
    Over the years, even normal cyclists started to consume energy bars and gels during rides, which apparently put the essential requirements in such a small package that you can keep it in your pocket and eat it during your ride. Therefore, it’s just not necessary to stop at a cafe for some cake. Moreover, special drinks got more common than simple water and coffee, one could probably find some sources stating that cake and coffee during your ride (especially when used with sugar or milk) is bad for you, you will take longer on the next strava segment. And isn’t that what cycling is about more and more?

    Ditch the energy drinks and leave your gels at home, stop at a cafe, have a piece of cake and a coffee or coke.

    • OK, but why would FRANCE be the victim of this vs Italy? Italian riders buy plenty of Enervit, Named, Energade and other “engineered food” products too, but Italian bars (as Morton has seconded) seem to be doing just fine as far as I can tell.

      • Italien bars proberbly dont pay taxes – and where france has a frm a scandinavian perspective has a reasonable income span between cities and rual arreas – Italy does not.

        • Not going to lie, Italian bars cheating on taxes isn’t that large of a problem. Obviously it is bad, but when the bar isn’t making that much money to begin with fudging on taxes is a tiny problem.

          Italy, France and other countries have much larger problems! For example, the wealthy moving cash to offshore tax havens, hiding cash in other ways, etc.

          Further, Inrng stated a whole list of real reasons why cafe’s don’t do well, and the tax rate was not on the list… the negative effect of claiming taxes is so tiny that it doesn’t even matter. Plus, I doubt that France’s cafe and small business owners aren’t faced with the same temptations as Italians when it comes to taking cash over recording their income properly!

          • I don’t want to flog a dead horse but.
            Larry, you’re noting the site listed above, your chart shows gross tax dollars lost not perhaps statistically a good measure . I would submit that perhaps a more accurate evaluation using your website’s chart is; size of shadow economy, Russia 1, Italy 2, US is last on the list

            I love Italy..

  15. Living in Italy for 3-6 months during the summers for the past 10 years, I can say that Italian cyclists do stop at bars for quick caffe during their rides, but it tends to be the older riders. Another disaster that wasn’t mentioned is the loss of family country restaurants.

  16. What a sad and lovely entry, inrng. Thank you.

    The contrapunctus that is the picture of the Croix de Fer café made me think of how lovely it is that there is no such thing at the Galibier, where you (or at least I) have to throw yourself down to Lautaret or Plan Lachat to get a fix.

    • Really? I really enjoy finding a refugio, etc. at the top of a tough climb. There’s something special about lingering at the top and having a place to get a caffe, toast your arrival with a proscecco, etc. gives one the chance.
      On the passes we do each season in Italy only the Mortirolo doesn’t have one right at the top, but there is a tiny albergo/ristorante barely a km beyond the summit…with excellent food by-the-way.

      • Stop for an ice cream and water in Vezza D’Oglio then eat at Bonetta on Gavia – don’t be lazy and stop when the job is only half done Larry!. 😛

      • Don’t get me wrong, Larry. I just like the fact that not every famous pass has a café (or even a real cyclotourist trap) at the summit. Most do, and the Croix de Fer one is one of the nicer.

  17. Interesting piece. I think if you changed cafe for pub you would have a story of the British countryside.
    It seams the cafe and the pub filled the same community role and the same challenges are brining closures. The stats sound very similar on closures. Some pubs are now being brought by the community and prevention orders being placed to stop them being converted to housing.

  18. I think the taxes are another reason for this. I don’t know if Italian bar runners don’t pay their taxes, but I’m pretty sure the taxes are higher in France. Moreover, in most cases, people in villages work in bigger cities, and the villages are becoming villages-dortoirs… For a bakery, it’s ok, because people go to buy their bread before work, but they won’t go to a bar this early in the morning, neither at the end of the afternoon. That’s the case in my village anyway.
    I’m really surprised and honoured of how well you know my country, Mr Ring. You know France better that lots of Frenchmen, and you seem to really like it. Thank you.

    • That would be a good idea. Many mosques fulfil the community role that was mentioned above. There is a mosque in Edinburgh for example that provides a famous curry during the festival.

      • Good point. I don’t think caffeine or coffee are forbidden in Islam thankfully. It would be an entirely different story if it were owned by any Latter Day Saints, but I don’t think they have much presence in France.

  19. RooBay touched on this issue, but with regards to cafes in particular I think it needs to be explored further.

    At the risk of being presumptuous, I get the impression that France hasn’t adopted much in the way of the advanced cafe culture that has taken hold in other parts of the world (though this is changing in Paris). If what’s on offer is bland and uninspired then it’s a key factor in why the appeal of the cafe is dwindling for many.

    There is a long list of ways these cafes could be improved and remain competitive with the enterprises cannibalising their business (bakeries etc) – provided their owners have enough motivation and wherewithal to implement them.

  20. No real need for a good coffee as most people drink alcohol in french cafés.
    Cafés are still surviving outside large cities, maybe not for too long, unless chinese will buy them all like they do in Paris.
    Others small businesses are dying, notably bike shops.
    The problem is more the country itself and the politics.

  21. Go to Spain in stead. There’s a café or two in even the smallest towns. The coffee is usually good and the season lasts 12 months. What’s not to like 🙂

  22. Great article. Cycled and motorcycled a lot in France recently and have noticed this issue. It is such a shame that this is happening and I agree with much of the factors you have listed for their demise, there are geographical areas that appear to have been affected more than others. The one thing that I love about France is the sense of community and their support for local trade and commerce it would be awful if they were akin to the UK and adopt the US model of profit at all costs whist destroying communities with out of Town ‘big name’ commerce. Conversely given the taxation and social contributions employer’s have to pay for the businesses and employees the Government in France levys is there any wonder the cafes are closing in such numbers.

  23. Oh forgot in all honesty now being a coffee snob, there is definitely a je ne sais pas with French blend espresso coffee at times to me there almost seems to be a ‘National Blend’ one with a burnt bitter taste, keeps me awake and energised though.

  24. After I graduated from (undergrad) university, I was lucky enough to travel to, live, work, and travel throughout New Zealand. First of all, it was the time of my life! What a beautiful place. That was 15 years ago and I’ve always had a fear the place would change for the worse. Coming from the U.S., I LOVED that it was plenty modern, but also quite different and unique. I was somewhere deep on the South Island and I awoke in a hostel and realized that even in this tiny town, there was a KFC and the Golden Arches. I decided right then and there that I’d stop patronizing chain restaurants; I don’t want every town on the planet to have the same garbage food purveyors. I’m proud to say I haven’t touch chain food since 2001. (I know I’m NOT changing the world, but I won’t partake in supporting their business).

    This is a sad article and wow, that is quite the drop off! As much as I’m a cynic, I think there will always be wonderful places out there to discover. I spent some time living in the Czech Republic and wow, what an incredible place!

  25. It’s definitely sad, but as it basically about depopulation, it shouldn’t be unavoidable. Most urban French people I know would indeed prefer in the countryside. In the old days, the kings in most countries would have a deliberate policy, in order to keep the country populated. I don’t know why sizeable countries like France, Spain, Sweden don’t do just that. Maybe a tax free status would help. And at any rate, France should keep all those commercial chains, Carrefour, Leclerc, Auchan, Conforama, and whatnot, because they have a serious impact too, and devaluate the countryside.

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