France has set out to save an endangered species: the small-town café.
Earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron launched a campaign to open or sustain cafes in 1,000 French villages. That project, called 1,000 Cafes, will be run by Groupe SOS, a charity run by a Macron ally that will receive up to $220 million from the French government to complete its mission. It’s also part of the government’s new “rural agenda.”
Earlier this month, 1,000 Cafes began taking applications from small-town mayors. There are two requirements: Fewer than 3,500 residents, and no café. (Or, one café that’s in danger of closing.)
The idea is to restore a social and commercial space that can serve as a counterweight to decades of commercial decline and population loss. Though young French people (like their American counterparts) have flocked to big cities, small villages still account for 30 percent of France’s population. More than half of them no longer have a single operating commercial establishment.
Commercial vacancies in French towns have doubled over the past 15 years as shoppers abandon downtown merchants for suburban big-box stores. The country has a higher concentration of malls than anywhere else in Europe. That requires more driving on the part of both consumers and employees, more gas consumption, and more trips to the dreaded roundabouts where the Gilet Jaunes movement began last fall.
Jacqueline Gourault, the government minister who announced the project this summer, said the idea of revitalizing France’s small towns had always been one of the government’s goals. But she acknowledged that the Yellow Vests movement had made the idea more urgent. That protest began as a revolt against a gas tax, but quickly grew to express broader discontent in the country’s rural areas, sometimes referred to as “France profonde,” or “France péripherique.”
As a gesture aimed at placating the country’s left-behind, a program of subsidized bistros sounds a little too cute. Then again, Macron did manage to quell some of the uproar of the weekly protests earlier this year with a parodically French program called the “Great Debate”—a national blitz of community meetings where residents could air their grievances and discuss solutions.
Now come the cafes, though Groupe SOS evidently conceives of them as something more: A place to buy grocery staples, do some work with a laptop, or access information about local attractions. And of course, have a glass of wine.
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