Sunday, November 23, 2008

Crisis, Smoking Ban, or Cultural Change?

French cafés are closing in record numbers. This Times article proposes two culprits: the economic crisis and the smoking ban, along with a third and more ominous one:

“The way of life has changed,” he said. “The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. They are eating and drinking like the Anglo-Saxons,” the British and the Americans. “They eat less and spend less time at it,” Mr. Picolet said.

Horribile dictu!


kirkmc said...

I think that, outside of Paris or other big cities, cafés just don't have the right context for today's society. You get lots of alcoholics, and the atmosphere is quite depressing. I can understand why younger people avoid them; they look like end-of-life wards in some places.

Even in small towns, where they used to be meeting places, cafés are dismal. Every time I go in one (which is getting more and more rare) I feel like i'm in a museum.

Unknown said...

I've been in many sad cafés of the sort you describe, but there are also provincial towns where the café is quite obviously a center of sociability and animation. It all depends--to coin a phrase. I'm not sure on what, though. Often the villages with the depressing cafés are depressing in other ways as well: an underrepresentation of the young in the population, for example. In other villages, the cafés are dominated by louts rather than the elderly--what would be called "lad culture" in the UK, and this tends to drive away the more sedate. The newspaper article--being a newspaper article, after all, not a sociological treatise--didn't attempt a nuanced picture. Someone ought to, but it wouldn't be an easy job. The café ecosystem in France has always been complex, and it would take some delicate portraiture to bring out the relevant distinctions.

MYOS said...

The smoking ban does have a terrible effect.
However I've discovered a new cafe in my current small town - they redecorated, with several "atmospheres", small niches, good music, and free wifi, plus a menu for all budgets.
The previous owner had made it run off hte mill depressing, now it's getting new clients.
But the smoking ban is wrekcing havoc.

Anonymous said...

The smoking ban is necessary. I'm a smoker, and a vivid defender of the smoking ban. And it was about time. As for the change in lifestyle, I wonder why it is a bad thing. We can't just pretend to be in the sixties, as we do here in France. The world is changing. I still have to find a good entrepreneurial idea that will reshape the "bistrot/cafe" and make it something contemporary. Most of the cafes are simply disgusting, even in Paris.

vincent1 said...

I agree with MYOS, the smoking ban is the ONLY reason I no longer go to pubs, clubs, coffeeshops. I know I am not alone with those thoughts either. Bans are not good for the economy.
No-one was ever banned from investing their own money into smoke-free venues. They should have been little goldmines surely?
8th August 2006 the HSE in the document OC 255/15 article9 state
for some strange reason hmm it has been changed to OC 255/16 Paragraph 14
”HSE cannot produce epidemiological evidence to link levels of exposure to second hand smoke to the raised risk of contacting specific diseases”.

Our old folks today are the heaviest consumers of cigarettes, and the longest-lived generation, in human history.
Air quality testing by Johns Hopkins University, the American Cancer Society, a Minnesota Environmental Health Department, and various researchers whose testing and report was peer reviewed and published in the esteemed British Medical Journal......prove that secondhand smoke is 2.6 - 25,000 times SAFER than occupational (OSHA) workplace regulations:

I do not normally go to Countries that are intolerant towards smokers, this will be the only reason for my visiting Brussels in the new year.
1st World Conference Against Prohibition: "Smoking Bans and Lies"
Brussels, at the European Parliament Building, 27/28 January, 2009 for smokers and smokers alike who think this ban is wrong, please join us


Unknown said...

Well, Mandy, I beg to differ. Most of my French friends are nonsmokers, and they find cafés more appealing now that the smoke is gone. I'm a tolerant fellow, but you smokers ought to realize how unpleasant your habit is for others.

Anonymous said...

If Anti-Smokers don't care what smokers do as long as they are nowhere near them, then why is it that Anti-Smokers are against smoking clubs run by smokers,staffed by smokers and limited to smokers and non-smokers who don't mind the smoke.

Unknown said...

Never having heard of smoking clubs, I wouldn't know. Now that I've heard of them, I'm not against them. Live and let live, or, rather, let die: if smokers want to hasten their deaths, that's find with me.

M Lapin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M Lapin said...

I, too, found the NY Times article unsatisfying. It strikes me that the smoking ban is a detail that can be seized upon and substituted for what are really larger forces at work. To say that "ways of life are changing" is a nod in the right direction, but stops short of coming to grips with exactly how and why those patterns are changing. As Arthur Goldhammer rightly suggests, that is a very complex socio-cultural-economic knot to unravel.

Where I am currently living, in Angers (Maine-et-Loire, western France), cafe and bar culture is vibrant. Smokers have taken over the terraces, oblivious to the weather, protected by verandas and heaters. However, Angers is a very bourgeois town. University students, young friends and lovers are largely the cafe and bar clientele. No workers drop in for a cafe and a calvados to jump start their day. And it seems to be the office and professional crowd who lunch at the brasseries. Those on a restricted budget get take-out sandwiches, pizza, or pasta or Chinese food in a box and eat it on the steps outside of buildings.

France has been singing the lament of the disappearing neighborhood cafe for nearly a century now. I think particularly of the 1930s, and Fréhel's "Où est-il, donc?" ("Where has my corner bistro gone?"). What's remarkable about that song, is that Fréhel sings it in the movie "Pépé le Moko," starring Jean Gabin, where the working-class milieu of Paris has been transported to the Casbah in Algiers. An entire genre of nostaglic songs for the disappearing "faubourgs" (traditional neighborhoods) of "vieux Paris" emerged at this time. It's what made Piaf famous, after all.

As France has become a mass consumer society that rivals America, none of us should be surprised by the fate of the neighborhood cafe -- or rather, by its commercial transformation into a site of nostalgia.

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