French cafés: the ‘traditional’ cafe versus the community café
Cafes are central to life in France. Many residents frequent their local cafe for food, drinks, and to socialize with friends and neighbors. The ‘traditional café’ is a revered and important contributor to French culture. The decline in the number of village cafés is distressing and attracting government attention and funding.
The most recent trend to attempt to counteract the decline is the introduction of the ‘community café’.
‘Community cafes’ are known in French as les cafes associatifs or les cafes solidaires. This new type of café embraces the social aspect of a traditional French café and takes it to a whole new level.
Is the iconic French café really dying out?
The number of local cafes in France has dwindled from 200 000 to fewer than 40 000 in a half-century. This important and iconic part of French culture is in danger.
Let’s look at the changes occurring, particularly in villages and small towns:
Recently, many young people are abandoning villages for urban areas.
In addition, the takeover of chain cafes and restaurants has diminished the number of local cafes all over the country.
France’s hotel and catering sector union fears many businesses will be forced to close for good by the end of 2020, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
What can be done to arrest this decline?
Several initiatives have been put in place during the last few years in order to combat the overall decline of cafes in France.
In fact, cafes have been deemed so important to France that the government is stepping in to save them. Part of France’s “rural agenda plan” includes supporting an initiative launched by Group SOS known as ‘1000 Cafes.’
This initiative seeks to establish or sustain cafes in order to revitalize villages and small towns. The goal is to open 1000 cafes in rural France.
In small towns, the closing of a café can actually be disastrous as it leaves residents with few or no places to socialize and in turn, leads to social isolation.
Mayors are encouraged to apply to the program if their commune has:
- less than 3500 inhabitants
- no café or a café currently at risk of closing
- a vacant space that could be transformed into a café
The initiative began in 2019, and the first cafes opened in March 2020. Despite setbacks from the COVID pandemic, Group SOS maintains twenty cafes, and applications for the program are ongoing.
The community café: government supported initiative to foster togetherness
In recent years, community cafes have become more popular in France. Since the year 2000, several hundred community cafes have appeared. Run as a nonprofit, and sometimes subsidized by the city, these cafes have a variety of different themes or projects on which they focus.
However, they all share one common goal: to bring people together.
Let’s look at some examples:
Reseau Paul Bert is an institution in the heart of Bordeaux. This community cafe focuses on social services. It seeks to help those in precarious situations by offering showers, a laundry room, and internet access. Its café is always full at lunchtime. For the modest sum of four euros, the café provides a hearty and locally sourced meal including a main dish, dessert, and glass of wine. Volunteers can get involved with a variety of eco-projects: the vegetable garden out front, and impressively, honey production from beehives installed on the roof of the building!
Café Maya is a community café in the 12th arrondissement of Paris that focuses on culture. Their mission is to bring people together, exchange ideas, and share cultures. A look at their calendar shows a multitude of cultural events such as a literary cafe, an Iranian classical dance show, and a photography exhibit of China. Supported by the city of Paris, Café Maya remains accessible to everyone by offering a two-euro annual subscription which gives members access to events as well as low cost meals.
The Community Cafe: injecting small towns with life
In addition to the 1000 café initiative supported by the national government, community cafes are popping up in rural areas as well.
For example, volunteers run Café associatif de Pancé in Ille-et-Vilaine, a village of 1200 in Brittany. The town hall, who provides the funding, sees this community cafe as greatly important for maintaining the life of the village. It provides a social space for locals who otherwise would not have one. Open on Fridays and Sundays, the café serves food and drinks and hosts events such as concerts, sports broadcasts, and aperitifs to bring the community together.
For cities, no government initiative exists to maintain cafes as it does in small towns. However, there is a campaign to obtain UNESCO ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage ‘status for Paris’s traditional bistros with support from Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and President Emmanuel Macron.
Of course, community cafes are becoming more and more popular in urban areas as well. We may just have to count on them to keep the café spirit alive.
By visiting and supporting a community café or other traditional local cafes in France, we can hope to save the beloved terraces that make French cities and towns so special.
Furthermore, as a visitor to France, a community cafe can be a unique place to boire un verre and have a glimpse at the diversity of local life.
Have you been to a community cafe before? Do you think cafes will remain an important part of social life in France? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter @maviefrancaise
- Living alone in France: young single expat social networks via myfrenchlife.org
- Biking in Bordeaux: covid-19 spurs urban greening via myfrenchlife.org
- Second lockdown a ‘death knell’ for French restaurants via rfi.fr
- Groups calls for “1000 village cafes to revive France” via connectionfrance.com
- In Brittany, associative cafes make the heart of villages beat via tellerreport.com
- Paris to Protect the ‘Intangible’ Cultural Value of Its Bistrots via Bloomberg.com