Yesterday’s New York Times published an article on the accelerating demise of the neighborhood French café: Across France, Cafe Owners Are Suffering – NYTimes.com.
This time last year, we scoffed at the suggestion that France’s then-impending smoking ban would trigger the collapse of French café society. But sure enough, that collapse appears to be in progress no matter. Since 1960, France has seen the number of its cafés decline almost 80%. And, as noted in the article, many of these remaining cafés are operating empty and facing bankruptcy. (This is obviously much bigger than where you can smoke your Gitanes.)
So what happened? The article cites a harsher economic climate. But that’s both limited in scope and far from permanent, particularly given the café’s demise over generations. The greatest alarm concerns the changing social customs in France — major changes to the French way of life — that are contributing heavily to the erosion of the “third place” in French society.
French café society now comes in the convenience of aluminum cans!
Now we’ve always felt that the last reason to go to a café in France was for the coffee — particularly given the atrocities the French have committed against good coffee. But the article notes that the drink of choice among today’s French youth is “Coca Light” — or Diet Coke. That France’s youth prefers soft drinks over coffee mirrors some of the same major problems the American coffee industry faced in the 1980s — resulting in such famous marketing gimmickry as the Coffee Achievers ads and flavored coffees.
Is the French café in need of an American-style coffee renaissance to improve the coffee standards there? It wouldn’t be the first time that Americans co-opted “culture” from abroad, repackaged it here for the locals, and then exported it overseas to sell it back to its origins — albeit in a mutated form.
Oddly enough, it seems that very thing — the influence of American culture on French society — is already at work and at least partially behind the erosion of the French café. Once the French could not believe that American workers ate lunch at their desks and sipped their coffee “to-go” out of paper cups. But, as the article suggests, these worst of Anglo-Saxon habits are becoming the norm among the former Normans.
In France, Jean-Luc is apparently being replaced by vending machines dispensing Diet Coke.
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