IT is a quintessentially French scene: As meal time approaches, in hurried cities and peaceful villages alike, Frenchmen head home with a golden, naked baguette of bread - or two - clutched resolutely in hand or wedged insouciantly under an arm.
The most picturesque bearer is still a grizzled, ruddy farmer topped by a well-worn beret. But today those carrying home this revered basic sustenance are more likely to be a dark-suited businessman, a chic Parisienne - the leash to her fashionable canine in the other hand - or a backpack-toting schoolchild.
Yet while France's spiritual relationship with its bread has survived the last half-century's transition from rural to urban society, a growing chorus of bakers, consumers, and officials worry that the object of adulation, the bread itself, has not.
What once contained nothing other than flour, water, yeast, and salt, is increasingly adulterated with additives to make the bread rise better, turn whiter, and last longer. Industrial concerns now deliver frozen bread dough to bakeries, so that some neighborhood boulangeries, or bread shops, are ``no longer boulangeries at all,'' as one government anti-fraud official recently noted, ``but only baking terminals.''
Now France is about to act. To safeguard not just its bread ``but an area, food, and gastronomy, which contributes to the reputation of France,'' the government is set to approve measures strictly defining what goes into French bread, how it is prepared, and who makes it.
Once Prime Minister Edouard Balladur signs the new decrees, as expected, two new official labels will distinguish breads across the country: ``home-made,'' for breads mixed, kneaded, and baked at the point of sale; and ``traditional French,'' for breads whose dough was never frozen and contained no additives.
The new law is roundly supported by France's thousands of traditional bakers, but dismissed by industrial bakers who take a growing share of the bread market - now about 15 percent - and who resist the suggestion that their bread is any less French than the local baker's. ``With less and less order in the way bread is made, it became necessary to at least inform consumers about the kind of bread they're buying,'' says Jean-Louis Mack of the National Confederation of French Breadmaking, which represents 36,000 independent breadmakers. ``[Consumers] have a right to know if they're buying the pure product from someone who knows just how to mix flour, salt, water, and yeast, or if their so-called baker really only knows how to push buttons on an oven.''
Yet according to industrial breadmakers, the legislation risks causing more problems than it solves. Truly ``traditional'' bread makes up only about 5 percent of the market, says Nicole Watelet, general secretary of the National Union of Industrial Breadmakers. The new law has the effect, she adds, of voiding regulations that for decades have covered the great majority of bread consumed in France.
``Ascorbic acid is one additive that has been allowed for 40 years, and without which today's bread would be unrecognizable,'' says Ms. Watelet. ``Fermentation is what makes the bread, but French wheat is hard, making fermentation more difficult. So either we continue with certain additives that aid the process,'' she adds, ``or we'll be forced to turn, for example, to American wheat, which is an easier bread maker.''
La baguette made with American wheat? The only graver sacrilege would be the disappearance of the baguette from the French landscape altogether. And while that is unlikely, French per capita bread consumption has plunged - from two pounds a day at the turn of the century, to a sixth of that today.
Bakers supporting the new law hope it will encourage the French to consume more bread. Whether they do or not, they'll still have the satisfaction of walking home with the bare, crunchy baguette in hand.