John Lichfield: Cafe society is dead, but long live the cafe

Paris Notebook: The cafe is no longer a community in which strangers become, briefly, friends

Young people are not all bad. When I was in Prague recently I met a couple of impressive students – intelligent, thoughtful, curious – who convinced me that Europe's future need not be in the past.

Much the same could be said of Ben Wood, a history student from University College, London, who has just completed a wonderful, single-handed survey of a great French institution: the cafe. For a British undergraduate to spend his whole summer haunting French bars might not seem so surprising, or wonderful, as all that. Ben, whom I met and helped a little during his stay in Paris, was even being paid to sit around in French cafes. He won a £ 1,500 grant from the Peter Kirk Memorial Fund, which encourages young Britons, to travel to Europe and write about a subject of their own choice. The fund was set up in memory of Sir Peter Kirk MP, the pro-European Conservative who led Britain's first delegation to the European Parliament (David Cameron, please note).

Ben Wood, 19, set out to investigate whether the long relationship between the cafe and French culture – especially intellectual culture – had survived the age of Starbucks, alcopops and Facebook. He noted his findings in Paris and the south of France in an entertaining blog, which can be found at www.benscafeblog.com.

His full report, running to 58 pages, has now been submitted to the Peter Kirk Fund. It contains much shrewd observation on what has changed, and what is unchangeable, in French life. There is an especially amusing section on his visit to a Philosophy Cafe near Bastille in Paris. The subject of the day was "J'ai peur de rien" – I am afraid of nothing. For two hours, the discussion bogged down in a sterile, linguistic argument. Did the subject mean "I am without fear" or "I fear nothingness"? This was the moment, Ben writes, when he realised that the free-wheeling cafe culture of the 1930s or the 1950s – when Jean-Paul Sartre held court in Montparnasse – had vanished.

Overall, he concludes (rightly, I think) that the French cafe is thriving but French café society is dead. The cafe remains vital as a place to eat or drink or rest but it is rarely a community in which strangers become, briefly, friends. "Intellectual debate is not as common in bars, cafes and bistros," he concludes "because it is not as common in society at large." President Nicolas Sarkozy is engaged in a largely cynical campaign to investigate 21st-century French national identity. He should order a copy of Ben's report.

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