Cafe culture: France fights to keep its fraternité

Why We Wrote This

How important is it for people to have a place to congregate? In France, where the number of iconic cafes is on the decline, patrons and politicians are trying to hold onto a culture that promotes camaraderie. 

Thibault Camus/AP
Waiter Didier Hubert (center) talks with a customer at Au Petit Fer a Cheval café in the historical Marais district of Paris, Sept. 19, 2019. In the last half century, the number of iconic French cafes has dropped from approximately 200,000 to 40,000.

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French cafes are places where keys get dropped off, issues get debated, and different social classes mingle. But changes to the cafe culture are jolting the country like a strong espresso. 

The “Brooklynization” of cafes means more coffee being served in to-go cups, an abundance of co-working spaces popping up, and rural cafes shuttering. In the last half century, the number of iconic French cafes has dropped from approximately 200,000 to 40,000. French President Emmanuel Macron recently approved a 150-million euro ($165 million) rescue plan to save 1,000 cafes in France’s small towns.

Even so, French cafe culture is far from dead. Owners – and French and foreign patrons – desire to keep it alive, even if that means adapting to new ways of operating.

“French cafes are extremely important places to meet others, talk freely, and make connections,” says Josette Halégoi, a psycho-sociologist. “They’ve gone through a major transformation over the years, but still hold a very important place in our collective imagination.”

Old movie posters, edges fraying, hang unceremoniously on the walls of Café Parisien. The colored tile floor is cracked in places and the bar needs revamping. The Wi-Fi is spotty. But owner Zehor Ouaaz doesn’t plan on renovating.

“There are things we could fix up – the floor, the bar – but we want to keep the spirit of the cafe, its antique feel,” says Mrs. Ouaaz, over a plate of quiche and salad. “It’s part of its charm.”

For 10 years, Mrs. Ouaaz and her husband Reda have owned the Café Parisien in the 19th  arrondissement of Paris, in a neighborhood that has become increasingly gentrified. But while the clientele may have changed over the years, Mrs. Ouaaz wants her cafe to remain something consistent in the area.

“We’re a place where people can unwind, enjoy themselves and feel welcome,” says Mrs. Ouaaz. “All types of customers are welcome here … We’re a melting pot.”

French cafes like Café Parisien are more than just a place for a stiff espresso. Customers often use neighborhood cafes to leave their keys with trusted owners, have packages dropped off, or find the name of a local electrician. And in rural areas, the local cafe is often the only place outside work and home to meet and chat, play the lottery, or read the newspaper.

But increasingly, iconic French cafes are changing or dying off. The “Brooklynization” of cafes means more coffee being served in to-go cups, an abundance of co-working spaces popping up, and rural cafes shuttering. In the last half century, the number of cafes has dropped from approximately 200,000 to 40,000, according to France’s largest hospitality union, UMIH. French President Emmanuel Macron recently approved a €150 million euro ($165 million) rescue plan to save 1,000 cafes in France’s small towns.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Paris patrons share a meal at a café April 12, 2016. Proprietors have adapted in various ways to the changing café culture, including asking customers who spend hours doing remote work to buy a drink every hour and leave at noon to make way for lunch-goers.

Cafe closures and new client demands have altered the way cafe owners do business, with some moving toward acceptance of changing habits, and others remaining steadfast in their desire to hold onto the past. Even so, French cafe culture is far from dead. Owners – and French and foreign patrons – desire to keep it alive, even if that means seeing it in a new way.

“French cafes are extremely important places to meet others, talk freely, and make connections,” says Josette Halégoi, a psycho-sociologist and CEO of the Mimèsis International Research Institute in Paris. “They’ve gone through a major transformation over the years, but still hold a very important place in our collective imagination.”

“The life of the neighborhood”

Antoine Palerme sips an espresso as his giant Beauceron shepherd lies comfortably on the floor of Café Parisien. Mr. Palerme has been frequenting the cafe since he moved to the neighborhood in 1979. He used to visit for a night out when he was younger, but now he comes to chat with other regulars and compete with his neighbor on the daily crossword puzzle.

“This place isn’t just a cafe, it’s the life of the neighborhood,” says Mr. Palerme. “If the doors are closed, it means someone has died.”

Mr. Palerme says his choice of cafe is largely dependent on the ambiance here and especially owner Mrs. Ouaaz, who always serves with a smile. Owners play a vital role, serving not only drinks but acting as go-betweens for people in the community who may hail from different social classes, says Ms. Halégoi, the psycho-sociologist.

“Cafe owners speak with clients, put people in touch with others who might need a service, like a plumber, ” says Ms. Halégoi. “But new chains, like Starbucks, have no visible owner. You go in, you sit down, and you never make any social connections.”

France has seen a rash of Starbucks-like chains and co-working cafes in recent years, especially in Paris, as the start-up and freelance culture takes hold here. Some spaces charge by the hour or month, offering desk space, coffee, and snacks. But they often come with a hefty price, one that can be prohibitive to freelancers. In Paris, an average daily rate for a co-working space is around €25 ($27), or €400 ($440) per month.

Many turn instead to their local cafes as a way to find community while working – or escape small apartments, or children at home – without breaking the bank. Though they need the business, proprietors have adapted in various ways to the change in culture.

To counter the effect of hours-long squatting, L’Estampe, a cafe facing the massive Buttes Chaumont park, asks customers to buy a drink every hour and leave at noon to make way for lunch-goers. Down the street, Le Pavillon des Canaux, which advertises itself as a “co-office,” allows computers to be opened, but only during certain hours, in order to preserve a convivial cafe ambiance.

Thibault Camus/AP
Waiter Didier Hubert polishes a mirror at Au Petit Fer a Cheval cafe in Paris, Sept. 19, 2019.

Not everyone is happy about it. As one Facebook reviewer wrote, “Today you ask us to turn off our computers. Tomorrow, will you ask us to stop knitting? Using the phone? Reading? We’ve paid for our consumption and we should have the right to do what we want.”

A shift in the countryside, too

Beyond the cities, rural cafes are becoming a dying breed, as small towns battle against economic stagnation and urbanization. More than 25,000 rural communities are currently without a local cafe, reports UMIH. 

French nonprofit Groupe SOS is hoping to reverse the trend with its “1,000 cafes” initiative, which since mid-September has called on local mayors of towns of less than 3,500 residents to apply to become one of 1,000 to receive financial aid in order to open, or re-open, their local cafe. 

“Little by little, small towns are losing their cafes, along with their schools and other services,” says Jean-Marc Borello, president of Groupe SOS, which had already received 400 applications within the first two weeks of the program’s launch. “This initiative will allow towns to find their footing, to have a decent social life. Cafes are necessary to breathe life into small towns.”

In addition, building more cafes could help dissipate some of the anger and social unrest that stemmed from the Yellow Vest movement, which saw demonstrators protesting across France over regional and social disparities, tax hikes, and unfair wages. Mr. Borello suggests that providing spaces for locals to air their grievances with other members of the community could help prevent them taking to the streets.

“Cafes have always played a very important role in rural areas,” says Monique Eleb, a psychologist and sociologist at the Ecole d’Architecture Paris-Villemin, and author of “Paris, Société de Cafés.” “[Cafes in general] allow for discussion, the free flow of ideas, the mixing of social classes … and in small towns, if the local cafe is gone, it creates a major lack of camaraderie.”

Maintaining the “human quality” 

As urban cafe owners attempt to move with the shift that is taking place across France, from the cozy neighborhood bistrot where everyone knows your name to a co-working culture, only a handful have been successful. One of those is Le Café Zephyr, a dimly-lit cafe with an Art Deco vibe, 10 minutes from the Buttes Chaumont park in Paris. While a number of customers studiously tap away at their computers, an equal amount sit with friends reading the newspaper or chatting with the server.

Along with a large swath of French people, some foreigners are also hoping for the survival of cafe culture. Frank Oteri, a New York-based composer and music journalist, says he often seeks out cafes like Zephyr as a meeting place for coworkers or friends. “I like places with character, a history ... places that contain the energies of all the people in them,” he says. “I also love strong coffee.”

Back at Café Parisien, Mrs. Ouaaz is setting out napkins and silverware for the lunch rush. The few people on their computers won’t be asked to leave, but she says she won't be installing more outlets to the wall or adding soy milk to the drinks menu. 

“Everyone is welcome here ... but I don’t have the demand for that sort of thing,” she says. ”We really want to maintain the human quality of the cafe.”

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