Paris tries to revive the cream of cafe society

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The Independent Online
NEW STRATEGIES are being employed to entice Parisians back into the city's cafes. A 1995 study revealing the closure of 6,000 cafes every year due to lack of clientele has resulted in the opening of a chain of discount cafes, "Ah, ca ira" (That'll do nicely) and the promotion of Bistrots en Fete (Bistrot Festival) which seeks to reaffirm the place of the bistrot in French society.

The cafe has long been considered as the bastion of French life: its association with the glitterati of literary and artistic circles is legendary. "Without cafes there would have been no Sartre!" - such was the devotion of the existentialist writer to his petit cafe, according to Boris Vian who also belonged to the literary group that frequented the Cafe Flore during the post-war years.

Jean-Paul Sartre was certainly spoiled for choice; there were 200,000 cafes in France by 1960. By 1995 the number had dropped to 50,000, prompting the press to report the imminent death of the cafe. Jean Biron, then director of the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques said in Le Monde: "It is imperative that we find a way to save the cafe."

Wandering through the streets of Paris, one might well wonder what all the fuss is about. Finding a cafe is rarely a problem. But to a trendy Parisian, the cafe is not simply a watering-hole, it is a reflection of social milieu. The cafe is as much a part of personal style as what you wear: you are where you drink. In the hip areas such as the Marais or Oberkampf, the streets are swelled with the ranks of "in" bars vying to attract customers. Many have "themes" ranging from cyber cafes, to a recently opened psychotherapy cafe, to the simply downright cool.

Drinks in such cafes don't come cheap. In a really chic establishment, a beer or a cafe au lait taken on the terrasse can cost up to pounds 2.60. It was with this in mind that Ah, ca ira was created at the Place de la Bastille. A sign above the door proclaims: "Ah, ca ira! Les prix revolutionnaires. Ici, on peut apporter son manger" (Ah, that'll do nicely! Revolutionary prices. You can bring your own food). The concept is based on the British pub with counter service only. Beer, Ricard, coffee and soft drinks are sold for between 50 and 70 pence. The interior is reminiscent of certain fast food chains.

Benoit Boulanger, the manager of Ah, ca ira says: "We are the McDonald's of cafes, and proud of it. Our philosophy is discount. A family out for the day can't afford to pay pounds 10 every time they sit down for a drink. They pay a quarter of this price if they come to us. This is what French cafes need to take on board. We want to bring back the people who had stopped going to cafes."

But whilst Ah, ca ira is clearly onto a winner as far as reducing the price of a cup of coffee is concerned, it cannot be said to provide much in the way of ambience. It would certainly not be frequented by any self- respecting cafe groupie.

It is the more traditional cafe-bistrot that has suffered most from the threat of closure. These are the cafes au coin (corner cafes) where service with a smile only materialises when you have proven yourself to be fidele (faithful) to the establishment. The menu consists of staples such as steak-frites, salade nicoise and stomach-turning steak-tartare (raw minced beefsteak served with a raw egg and tabasco).

Bistrots en Fete was conceived to support the owners of such cafes. Celebrations based in bistrots around France will take place on 25 and 26 September and include jazz concerts, Tintin evenings, petanque competitions and debates. The organiser, Constance Perrin, says: "The aim of Bistrots en Fete is to affirm the place of the bistrot in society. Cafe owners have felt unloved for some time. They are very aware of the importance of cafes in French history - this is quite a responsibility. We want to witness the importance of bistrots in the cultural and social heritage of the country."

Serge Mahe runs the traditional Friedland cafe-brasserie situated on the Boulevard Haussmann, a stone's throw from the Arc de Triomphe. He has been in the profession for 25 years, following in the footsteps of his parents. Mr Mahe believes that stability is finally being regained this year after some very difficult times. But he says there is no danger, and never has been, of the cafe becoming a thing of the past.

"There will always be cafes in France - they are firmly anchored in French society. If the cafes go there will be nothing left. Neighbours don't talk to each other any more - cafes provide a vital meeting place."

The problems faced by the cafe industry are reflections of changing social habits: "Trends come and go. At the moment the themed cafes are all the rage and young people are starting to flock back into cafes. But in a few years time the themed cafes will be thinking of new ways to diversify," adds Mr Mahe.

It is true that the long lunch break has been eroded. But cafes still constitute an important part of French life. And with the economy looking up, the future of the cafe looks secure.