Crusty French Burnt Over Baguette War

The France where you can buy a freshly baked baguette every four hours a few blocks from home is disappearing - and French conservatives say they are determined to do something about it.

Warm baguettes are the latest symbol in the government's bid to convince voters that it can preserve what is distinctively French from global market trends.

On May 1, French President Jacques Chirac launched a broadside at supermarkets, saying that their "extraordinarily negative record" destroyed jobs and social life in the nation's cities and towns. Two days later, the government proposed a new law to extend an April 12 freeze on new supermarket construction for six months and raise the barrier for new permits.

One casualty is the 96-cent bakery baguette that supermarkets sell for as little as 18 cents. Paris has lost 12 percent of its local bakers in the last decade.

In the 1960s, most French purchased food in local shops; today, 75 percent comes from supermarkets.

The government has also stepped-up efforts to limit the incursions of American films and rock music on French television and radio. Forty percent of the songs on radio stations must now be in French, and the time slots when American films can be shown has been narrowed.

Critics say that the tough talk on preserving French culture is geared to compensate for what has been the government's biggest failure in its first year - its inability to bring down double-digit unemployment.

France's new conservative government is the most pro-free-market in postwar history. It is stepping up the pace of privatizing state-owned industries, eliminating huge public subsidies to defense industries, and just announced plans to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in the state bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Alain Jupp's comment this month on the need to eliminate "excess fat" in government created a media sensation in a nation where 1 out of 4 workers takes home a state paycheck.

French conservatives won the presidency last year on a pledge to tackle unemployment. But that promise has been tough to keep. In October, the government abandoned job creation in favor of a new round of tax increases and budget cuts needed to meet European targets to bring government deficits to under 3 percent of gross domestic product by 1999.

Conservative political strategists are alarmed that future budget cuts needed to meet these targets will further alienate traditional conservative voters. The new social rules, such as the freeze on supermarket construction, cost little but target the concerns of these voters.

"The president of the Republic has intervened on several occasions to explain our vision of things," Jean-Pierre Raffarin, minister for small business, told deputies last week. "We want more social interaction in our economy; we need structures on a human scale. Our choice isn't just nostalgia. We want to enter the year 2000 with structures that enhance the individual."

Socialist critics were quick to point out contradictions in the government's latest venture into social engineering. "They are partisans of a disengagement of the state to the point of speaking of 'excess fat' in the public service. Yet now they propose setting up an administered economy with rigid rules," said Socialist Deputy Julien Dray during debate on the bill in the National Assembly last week. "What a paradox that the most liberal wing of the majority is the strictest when it comes to commerce!"

The French parliament passed a similar bill to curb the growth of supermarkets in 1973. But the local commissions required to approve new supermarkets failed to curb the growth of big discounters. In addition, many commissions created under the 1973 Royer law became conduits for illegal campaign contributions to local political parties.

"The Royer law functioned fairly well for its first few years, but local officials then began to think more about their next election than about local commerce. The tax revenues from supermarkets as well as occasional bribes helped politicians get reelected," says Guy Carcassonne, a law professor at the University of Paris, at Nanterre.

Critics also charge that the new legislation comes too late and may only serve to protect from foreign competition those French supermarket chains already in place.

France already has the densest network of supermarkets in Europe. The real target of the legislation is so-called "hard discounters" from Germany, Britain, and the United States, who have yet to establish a strong presence in France.

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