If there is any part of France that is supposed to be thick with crowded, lively cafés, it is the Left Bank in Paris. This is where Jean-Paul Sartre and other postwar philosophers held court, where artists and writers drank and smoked and argued, and where travellers sampled a bit of traditional French life. "The café is the people's parliament," Balzac said.
The cafés of course are still here, but there are far fewer of them and the ones that remain can be strangely empty.
A spot called Le Nesle is one of them. Given its location, on the rue Dauphine near Saint-Germain, just in from the Pont Neuf, you would think it would be stuffed with Parisians and foreigners even though the décor is not particularly elegant. Yet on this fine, cool spring evening, there are only three customers, one at the bar, two taking turns rattling the Monster Bash pinball machine in the corner.
The owner, a tall, slim, 50ish blonde named Chauvin Marc, knows the cash register will not brim with euros when she leaves tonight. "The young are quitting the bars because of the smoking ban," she says. "It's also because of the [economic]crisis."
She looks out the window. "The street is a little sad."
Ms. Marc is not alone. All across France, cafés and bars are closing by the thousands and their mortality rate seems to be accelerating because of the recession, changing drinking and dining habits, and the stress induced by the money culture.
Work beckons and the French don't linger at cafés, bars and restaurants like they used to.
The smoking ban, introduced early last year, did a lot of damage, say café and bar owners. Penelope Semavoine, a young Parisian who works in public relations, notices that the cafés are particularly empty in the winter. "The cafés I go to are still full, but only in the summer, when the smokers can pull a chair outdoors," she says.
For café and bar owners, the pain will not end with the smoking ban and the recession. Starting in July, the legal drinking age in France will rise to 18 from 16 (in Italy and Germany, the legal drinking age is 16). The National Federation of Cafés, Brasseries and Discothèques says the lower drinking age will simply push teenage drinkers away from the bars and into the streets.
The French café society has been in trouble for at least two generations. In 1960, the country boasted 200,000 cafés. By 1995 the number had shrunk to 50,000. A study published that year said 6,000 cafés were closing every year. In response, a chain of discount cafés opened and festivals were launched to promote cafés.
The efforts appear, at best, to have only slowed the speed of the closings. By last year, according to the café federation, only 41,500 were still open for business, with an average of two closing a day.
A study published last autumn by Euler Hermes SFAC, a French credit insurance company, found that the bankruptcy rate among cafés rose 56 per cent in the first half of 2008, in good part because of the smoking ban. Traditional French restaurants fare poorly, too, with almost 1,800 going under in the same period, a increase of 25 per cent from the same period in 2007. The deepening of the recession in the second half of this year will likely produce even more victims.
The recession seems to have turned a bit of everyday life into a luxury. If you're standing at the bar of a Parisian café, you will pay €1.10 to €1.30 for a coffee (about $1.75 to $2.05, and some 20 to 30 per cent more than Italian prices). At a table, however, the price will almost double because you're renting the real estate. That's not cheap, some Parisians say. Office vending machines charge as little as 30 euro cents for a coffee; office cafeterias charge 80 euro cents. As a result, fewer employees are making the effort to go downstairs and out the revolving door for their morning caffeine fix.
Jacques Hubert-Rodier, a writer at the French national business daily Les Echos, has another explanation for the thinning crowds at French cafés - substandard coffee, at least in his opinion. "You know, a café in 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the cases in Paris is not that good," he says.
He might be right. How else to explain the proliferation of Starbucks in France? Next to the Odeon Métro station near Saint-Germain, in the traditional heart of Parisian café territory, a sleek, gleaming Starbucks can be packed. In Italy, where good coffee is cherished, there isn't a single Starbucks.
Having hit the café business with the smoking ban and the lower drinking age, the French government is finally taking pity. Starting in July, the value-added tax (VAT) on restaurant and café bills, which is already built into menu prices, is to fall to 5.5 per cent from 19.6 per cent. Whether the struggling owners will pass all the tax savings to the customers is an open question. If they don't, French cafés may face an even bleaker summer.