Margaret and Dick   


September 2011: Bandit boulangers

I noticed a strange sign in the window of our boulangerie (bread store) this morning: 

“Dear clients, We inform you that we are closed on Wednesdays.  (All day.)  Thank you for your understanding.”

What’s strange about the sign is that I’ve been going to this bakery every morning since they opened several months ago.  An industrious young couple purchased and renovated a boulangerie that had languished under the previous owners.  We’ve been consistently impressed by the new owners’ level of energy and hospitality, which is (dare we say it?) sometimes lacking in easy-going France.  

Madame is behind the counter every morning starting at 8am, having gotten the kids off to school.  Monsieur le boulanger arrives at 6am, at which time their employee baker has already been at work for three hours.  A former employee, a leftover from the previous owners and generally found hanging out in the doorway with a cigarette, has been replaced by a towering woman seen only fleetingly as she bustles breads from oven to shelves. 

The quality of their breads is impeccable.  I happily begin my day – every day – basking in Madame’s radiant smile as I choose among the day’s offerings.  

So what’s with the sign?  The answer became evident as soon as we opened the morning paper.  

“Three Local Bakers Brought to Court for Not Having Respected the Weekly Closing Day”.  The crackdown has begun.  Some years ago, the Prefecture (regional representative of the national government) issued an edict that boulangeries must close one day per week.  French law, you see, attempts to prevent unfair competition.  Summer sales have tightly regulated calendar dates, so no one can start their sale early and take unfair advantage.  So by this logic, if some bakers want to close one day, it should not be legal for others to stay open seven days.  Must stamp out initiative!  Oops, I mean competition!  Outlaws!

Lawyers for the bakers say it is “a matter of principle of liberty for the boulangers to open seven days a week if they want to, especially in the face of the pitiless competition from  supermarkets that also sell bread.”  Besides, they argue, the order from the prefecture is “tainted with irregularities and was announced without consultation.  Here we have boulangers who are accused of working too much.  The work rules for their employees conform to the labor code.  They arrange rotations of the team, to face up to economic realities of our country.  These are not big businesses but little enterprises just trying to survive.  Today, the situation is not to work more to earn more but work more to save your business.”

Bread in France is a basic nutritional element:  the average person here eats a half a baguette every day.  And what pleasure to buy bread still warm from the oven!  Typically both members of a French couple work full-time jobs and want to shop when they can find the time.  Stores have evolved to more flexible hours, and some even stay open through the lunch hour – shocking!

We were concerned about the effect of the law on the new owners of our boulangerie, so we asked Madame what she thought of the law.  Her answer surprised us.

“It doesn’t bother us, because we were planning to close one day per week anyway.  But we think it’s dumb and incorrect to force people who want work to close.  Doing the math, a boulangerie will lose 20,000€ ($28,000) gross revenue by closing one day a week.  It’s a huge amount of money.  For the few boulangeries that were brought before the courts, a fine of 500€ certainly isn’t going to cause them to close.”
“Wait, you mean they’re staying open?”
“Yes, and once in awhile they’ll pay a 500€ fine.”

Change occurs slowly in France, but every once in awhile one detects forward motion.  To the barricades, er, ovens, bakers!

Photo credits:
Boulanger with employees:  Midi Libre, 14 September 2011, used by permission.

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