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Traditional French cafes innovate to survive

Determined to defend their role as the hub of village life, rural cafes have started offering cultural events, including theater shows, concerts and art exhibitions, as well as Internet services

By Simon Coss  /  AFP , SAINTE ANNE DU HOULIN, FRANCE

Eric Gerardin, the owner of the “Sarah B” rural bar in La Roche-Bernard, Brittany, western France, is pictured in the bar on March 16.

PHOTO: AFP

France’s famed cafe culture is in deep crisis, forcing rural bars to defend their role as the hub of village life with services like theater, groceries or wireless Internet.

In the Breton hamlet of Sainte Anne du Houlin, Joel Hamard invites professional story tellers to his bar, the “Couleur Cafe,” to entertain customers who can also enjoy a bowl of soup made from local produce.

“When I first came here, the old people in the village would say this used to be a really lively place and I wanted to recreate that,” he said.

“You have to be open to everyone in a bar today, including children. It’s the only way you can hope to survive,” he said.

As in countless other villages, the cafe in Sainte Anne du Houlin plays a key social role as the only place where people can meet up regularly.

“In the hamlet it’s all there is,” Hamard said.

Judging by reactions to the story evening, Hamard’s gamble has paid off.

“I really liked it. It was funny, really enjoyable. A rich universe,” said Matthieu Boucher who had driven three quarters of an hour to join the show’s audience of children, grandparents and adults of all ages.

Local councilor Elisabeth Reperant said the bar had given a much needed boost to village life.

“We are in a rural area and we don’t have many places for young people to go. There is an event every weekend and on weekdays too in the summer. It’s definitely an advantage for us,” she said.

It’s a similar story elsewhere in Brittany.

In the picturesque port of La Roche Bernard, bar owner Eric Gerardin has organized an evening of improvisational theater, with local actors playing to peals of laughter.

“For me a cafe is a lively, dynamic place. It’s a forum. A village square,” Gerardin said.

Gerardin and Hamard are members of “Cafe de Pays Bretagne,” a network of 30 bars and cafes that offer cultural events like theater, concerts, art exhibitions and debates, as well as food made from local produce.

“It’s crucial for me to be in a network. Having a recognizable label helps the bar’s image and it also allows me to meet with colleagues and exchange ideas and experiences,” Gerardin said.

There is no denying the scale of the problem facing France’s cafes, however — particularly in rural areas.

Industry figures show that there were more than 200,000 cafes and bars in France in 1960. Today there are fewer than 30,000. And the current financial crisis has hit survivors hard. The average French bar saw its turnover drop 12 percent last year.

Authorities are so worried about the decline of cafe culture that this year the French senate hosted a major crisis conference in Paris.

“Cafes must offer a variety of services,” Minister for Rural Development Michel Mercier said. “And what is right for rural areas is also the case for towns and cities.”

Live entertainment is just one way rural bars are attempting to heed the minister’s call. Other establishments offer Internet services such as wireless hot spots in a bid to attract younger Web-savvy customers.

“Cafes must not be disconnected from the world their customers live in. An Internet terminal isn’t enough,” Patrick Villemin, secretary-general of Heineken France, told the Paris conference.

“A 20-year-old needs to be able to use their smartphone. Wi-Fi access is the minimum you need,” Villemin said.

France’s bar owners list many reasons why things are going so badly.

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