Every morning, I buy my newspapers from a charming, gloomy Breton, who runs one of the newspaper and magazine kiosks that are a characteristic part of the street furniture in Paris. In the afternoon, I buy Le Monde, from his charming, gloomy wife.
Their little box opens 14 hours a day, six days a week. Monsieur does the morning shift; madame the afternoon. Monsieur leaves for work before madame wakes up, and madame comes home just before monsieur goes to bed. They see each other all day on Sunday, and for a month every year, when they go on holiday to their little house by the sea in Brittany.
They are in Brittany at the moment. Usually, when their kiosk is closed, I buy the newspapers from another box 150m along the avenue. That box closed down a few months ago. The youngish tenant gave up (too much work, too little reward) and no one seems willing to take over.
There are supposed to be 430 news kiosks in Paris. They have been closing in droves. Only 310 of them are now open. The same pattern applies to newsagents' shops around the country (maisons de la presse). One in eight of them have closed in the last 10 years.
Until my Breton friends return, I have been buying my newspapers from a newsagent and stationery shop close to my home. The proprietor, Sébastien, is a talkative man in his forties, who has passionate views on all the news that he sells.
"My shop is for sale," he told me the other day. "I have had enough. There is no future, as a self-employed man, in this business. They want to drive us all out." What is going on?
What is going on is a characteristically French cat's cradle of bureaucracy and paternalism, intertwined with union bloody-mindedness and aggressive entrepreneurialism by those in a position to use the arcane rules of the system to their advantage. (Much the same pattern explains the nasty little dispute over unemployment pay for workers in the arts, which has destroyed much of France's summer arts season.)
The distribution of national newspapers and magazines is in the hands of a virtual monopoly called the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne (NMPP). This is 51 per cent owned by co-operatives representing the main national press and magazine groups, and 49 per cent owned by the book publisher Hachette, which is also the world's largest magazine publisher (Elle, Paris Match...).
This system, created in 1947, was supposed to ensure the even-handed, and cheap, distribution of newspapers and magazines, without political bias. The NMPP distributes almost all national publications, from the Catholic La Croix to the hardest porn magazines. It also decides, in its own infinite and bureaucratic wisdom, which, and how many, newspapers and magazines each kiosk and newsagent should have (when a lull in the strikes at the NMPP permits any distribution at all).
The kiosk and shop tenants or owners are supposedly independent entrepreneurs (and are hammered by the French tax system accordingly). But the system gives them no control over their own businesses. They have to accept, and pay for, the magazines that NMPP believes that they should take.
Sébastien showed me a pile of thick, expensive porn mags (each with a "free" video attached) that had been sent that morning. "I won't sell any of them," he said. "But it will be weeks before my account at the NMPP gives me my money back." In some weeks, he pays more for newspapers and magazines to the NMPP than he receives over the counter.
Newsagents in France keep around 17 to 18 per cent cent of the cover price of national newspapers and magazines (compared with up to 25 per cent in the UK). A curious exception is made, however, for the flourishing chain of Relay newsagents, which you can find in every French airport, station, service station and, increasingly, in the city centres. The NMPP gives Relay 30 per cent of the cover price. The Relay chain is owned by Hachette, which, you will remember, owns 49 per cent of the NMPP...
Sébastien is not the only newsagent to believe that the people who run this bizarre distribution system - under the cover of paternalism and fair distribution - are trying to destroy independent shops and kiosks. This would allow Hachette, progressively, to take over the news distribution business. Hachette, I should add, strongly denies any such plan.
The Ville of Paris, meanwhile, is alarmed by the disappearance of its news kiosks. It has agreed to subsidise the most struggling ones and has called for the creation of committees that would advise the NMPP on which publications should go to which shops. A French solution to a typically French problem.
Why the French are a nation of stay-at-homes
Since half the world seems to come to France on its holidays (60,000 million people a year), where do the French go? The answer is "to France".
A recent poll for Paris Match showed that nearly one in every two French people intended to go nowhere at all this summer. Of those who did plan to travel, 75 per cent were staying within France. Only one in 100 French tourists said that they were holidaying in Britain.
Beware the picnic police
The provisional prize for party-pooper of the summer goes to Yves Métaireau, the mayor of the seaside town of La Baule, just north of the mouth of the river Loire. M. Métaireau caused consternation a couple of years ago by banning volleyball from the town's sweeping, white beaches.
He has now gone one better, or worse, and banned tourists from picnicking on the sand. If you're going to La Baule this summer, as many Britons do, please be careful. The municipal police will be scouring the beaches for illegal substances, such as cucumber sandwiches.