France resuscitates dying villages one cafe at a time

John Leicester

PARIS (AP) – For the rural French village of Port-Brillet, the closure of its last cafe came as a painful shock.

Suddenly gone was the haunt where patrons put the world to rights over a drink or three, where anglers propping up the bar could crow about their catches from nearby lakes, and where the village mayor liked to play table football with friends. The demise of Le P’tit Bar, the local newspaper lamented, robbed Port-Brillet of “a bit of its soul.”

“Losing the cafe was a tough blow,” said Mayor Gilles Pairin. “I believe in the virtues of cafes. Most of all, I believe in places where people can meet each other.”

A mass die-off of France’s iconic cafes, from 200,000 to fewer than 40,000 in a half-century, is depriving the French of cozy cafes where they’ve gathered for generations – not merely for perk-me-up espressos, crusty morning croissants, but, most importantly, for company to keep solitude at bay.

The social-glue role of cafes as places where the French mingle, find friendship and sometimes love, squabble, mourn and celebrate, is seen as being so vital for the national well-being that a mentor and political ally of President Emmanuel Macron is launching a EUR150 million rescue plan for 1,000 of them. It is focussing on small villages off the beaten track where the shuttering of cafes is often a drama because the closures leave inhabitants with few, if any, alternative places to socialise.

A closed cafe named ‘Cafe du Siecle’ is seen in Pontcharra-sur-Turdine, central France. PHOTOS: AP
The closed bistro in Hasparren, southwestern France.

For Jean-Marc Borello, who was one of Macron’s teachers when the future leader of France was a student at Paris’ prestigious Sciences Po university, saving cafes isn’t only a social mission. It’s also an effort to respond to the bubbling grievances in swaths of France that people who live away from the bright lights of Paris and other cities are being left behind, deprived of public services, fast and reliable communications and opportunities for both work and play.

This “real territorial fracture,” as Borello puts it, between hopping cities and torpid towns and villages was dramatically exposed by the so-called “yellow vest” protest movement that erupted last November and rocked Macron’s presidency.

Legions of demonstrators in fluorescent jackets converged on the capital from the provinces for successive weekends during the months of often-violent upheaval that could yet flare again. Their complaints over taxation, wages, retreating public services and other issues painted the government in Paris as being chronically out of touch.

Borello, who heads a large French nonprofit with an annual turnover of EUR1 billion from a palette of activities in healthcare, childcare and other fields, doesn’t claim that rescuing cafes, alone, will assuage yellow vest tempers.

But reopening cafes in villages that lost them will, he argues, help combat social isolation, providing inhabitants with places to meet and kindle friendships, and “little by little restoring life to a village and connecting it to the rest of the world.”

“The simple fact of doing things together sometimes rekindles hope,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Borello wants the new locales to be super-charged versions of the traditional French bistrot. As well as the usual beverages, snacks and betting slips, they could also offer essentials that aren’t always close at hand in out-of-the-way areas, including bread, groceries, Internet access and postal services, and even help with online tax returns and other paperwork.

Although Borello doesn’t say so outright, people with cafes to go to might perhaps feel less of an urge to head back to makeshift camps that popped up on town and village roundabouts across France during the yellow vest movement. The camps had both a political role, as visible hotspots of protest, and a social one, with demonstrators gathering around campfires to share gripes, barbecue sausages and make friends.

“Clearly, the need to meet other people, to chat with other people, was also at the heart of those troubles,” Borello acknowledged.

Employees at the Paris headquarters of Borello’s Groupe SOS are sifting through letters from mayors proposing their villages for one of the 1,000 cafes and from people volunteering to run them. The cafe managers will get business training, while “villagers will decide on the name and we’ll decide on the decor together,” Borello said.

Groupe SOS aims to inaugurate the first new or rescued cafe before the end of the year.

Changing French demographics and habits contributed to the die-off of cafes. Village kids moved to towns for work; and highways and France’s super-fast network of TGV trains pinched off towns’ through-traffic that kept bistrots in business.