November 23, 2008
By STEVEN ERLANGER
SAULIEU, France — Nathalie Guérin, 35, opened Le Festi’Val bar and cafe here two years ago full of high hopes, after working at this little Burgundy town’s main competition, the Café du Nord. But this summer, business started to droop, and in October, she said, “it’s been in free fall.”
“Now there’s no one,” she said, standing in a somber room with a few sad holiday decorations, an idle pool table and one young man playing a video game.
“People fear the future, and now with the banking crisis, they are even more afraid,” she said, her eyes reddening. “They buy a bottle at the supermarket and they drink it at home.”
The plight of Ms. Guérin is being replicated all over France, as traditional cafes and bars suffer and even close, hit by changing attitudes, habits and now a poor economic climate. In 1960, France had 200,000 cafes, said Bernard Quartier, president of the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques. Now it has fewer than 41,500, with an average of two closing every day.
The number of bankruptcies filed by cafe bars in the first six months of 2008 rose by 56 percent over the same period a year ago, according to a study by Euler Hermes SFAC, a large credit insurance company. No reliable figures are available for the latter part of this year, when an economic slowdown here has been accelerated by the general financial crisis, a collapse in consumer confidence and the quick tightening of credit.
But the impression is that business is bad and getting worse, with people and companies cutting back on discretionary spending and entertainment budgets. And that is only compounding longer-term problems stemming from changes in how people live and growing health concerns.
“The bar of a cafe is the parliament of the people,” as Honoré de Balzac wrote, but it is being less frequently visited these days, especially by the young.
Not only are the French spending less, and drinking less, cutting down on the intensity and quality of the debates, but on Jan. 1 of this year, after much huffing and puffing, France extended its smoking ban to bars, cafes and restaurants.
Marco Mayeux, 42, the bartender of Le Relais, a Paris cafe in the 18th Arrondissement, said the ban alone had cut his coffee and bar business by 20 percent.
“A place like mine doesn’t appeal to everyone; it’s very working-stiff,” he said. “There is a coffee-at-the-counter feel that isn’t attractive anymore.”
Before, clients would go inside a cafe, have a coffee, a cigarette and another coffee. But now they go out to smoke, and sometimes they do not come back, many cafe owners said.
Gérard Renaud, 57, owner of the Restaurant de L’Église in Marsannay-la-Côte, said that business was down at least 30 percent. “Now people don’t eat,” he said. “They come in for a coffee or a little aperitif and that is it. We are used to being busy, but now we feel lazy, and it is depressing.”
Ms. Guérin is trying to sell her cafe, but has had only one nibble in this lovely town of some 3,000 people, much visited by tourists, where the renowned hotel-restaurant Relais Bernard Loiseau is just down the street.
Jean-Louis Humbert is the district director of the Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques, and he is blunt about Ms. Guérin’s chances. “It’s finished for her,” he said. “No one wants to buy it. The banks don’t want to lend her any more money, and it will end up in liquidation.”
Daniel Perrey, 57, owner of the Café du Crucifix in Crimolois, blamed social change, saying: “Sadly, it is the end to a way of life. The culture is changing, and we feel it.”
People are drinking less, smoking less and spending less, and even those who drink are newly wary of the local police, who now hover near the bar, especially at night, to test the sobriety of drivers. President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked the police to crack down on drunken drivers.
“Workers don’t take taxis,” Mr. Perrey said, stroking his lavish mustache and laughing. He gleefully showed photos of a small police car wrapped around a tree in his parking lot after an accident, saying, “They had to call the firemen to get them out!”
The cafe, he said, is a kind of public living room, especially in small towns and cities, and it is suffering as habits and laws change.
“We need the cafe to have an equilibrium between the village and the world outside,” Mr. Perrey said. “Without the cafe, you lose the conviviality. You lose your mates. Business agreements are made behind the zinc” of the bar.
“We have to be very careful,” Mr. Perrey continued. “If we standardize everything in France, and we study everything, and forbid everything, we destroy respect for our culture. We need to preserve the cafe bar. What is a village but a cafe, a school, a pharmacy, a bakery and a city hall?”
Edouard Etcheverry, known simply as Doudou, with a wide, friendly face and a well-tended belly, is an “Amélie” version of a bartender and the owner of L’Express, a crowded bar and restaurant on the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. He keeps his prices down — a small coffee for a euro (about $1.25), a Pernod for two.
He pointed at a customer sitting alone at a table drinking a glass of tap water. “That’s our new customer!” he shouted. Then he turned to a group of bank employees at another table and said, “You see, they got 386 billion euros from the government, but they can’t spend a cent when they come here!”
Maria and Philippe Malichier, owners of the newly refurbished Duc d’Albret restaurant in Paris, look miserable. They have 35 seats, and on a recent day at lunch the place was almost empty, except for an old Spanish couple and a lone woman. With the economic crisis, Ms. Malichier said, “now it’s a carafe of tap water, main course and off you go.”
In Paris, Bernard Picolet, 60, is the owner of Aux Amis du Beaujolais, which his family started in 1921 on Rue de Berri. “The way of life has changed,” he said. “The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. They are eating and drinking like the Anglo-Saxons,” the British and the Americans.
“They eat less and spend less time at it,” Mr. Picolet said.
People grab a sandwich at lunchtime and eat as they walk or sit at their desks. They stand in line to buy prepackaged espresso sachets, to drink coffee at home, or have coffee at the office, at the boss’s expense.
In Crimolois, at the Crucifix, Mr. Perrey’s wife, Nathalie, runs the kitchen and works 14 hours a day. “My wife is in love with her work; she loves her kitchen,” Mr. Perrey said.
But in fact Mrs. Perrey, 37, says she feels trapped. “The crisis started progressively, but now it moves very fast,” she said. “I worry it will last a long time.”
They thought about selling, she said, but it is not necessary now. “But the banks won’t lend to us, and if we shut, we can’t get any financial support from the state,” she said. “We’d have to go on unemployment, so we’re trapped.”
Mr. Quartier and his union have started a school for new cafe owners, to try to teach them to find a niche, to serve better drinks and food, to think about installing a flat-screen television, to make sure they serve the favorite bottled drink among French youth: Coca Light.
In Paris, Mr. Picolet, of Aux Amis du Beaujolais, said simply: “The bar-cafes? They’re finished. Twenty years ago, people would go in the morning before work for a coffee and a cigarette. And now, it’s over. Young people don’t drink during the day, and when they drink, they drink to get wasted. Smoking is forbidden and they eat en route, with coffee in a paper cup. They smoke and drink at home.”
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting from Paris.