Is the tradition of the French cafe dying?

Among the myriad stories of the global financial crisis that appear almost daily, this one from the New York Times today caught my eye.

The economic downturn is impacting that most sacrosanct of French traditions, the bar-cafe.

The article notes Balzac’s famous dictum — “The bar of a cafe is the parliament of the people” — in detailing how the French cafe is in real trouble these days. Simply put, people are going out less and when they do, they’re spending less.

The days of the long, leisurely French lunch — a couple of courses accompanied by a bottle of wine — have been replaced with the take-out sandwich, eaten on the run.

If they do come to the cafe, a owner named Maria Malichier tells the Times, “it’s a carafe of tap water, main course and off you go.”

“Now people don’t eat,” says another cafe owner, Gérard Renaud. “They come in for a coffee or a little aperitif and that is it. We are used to being busy, but now we feel lazy, and it is depressing.”

What’s behind this? Obviously a bit has to do with the financial crisis. But at the beginning of this year a smoking ban extended to include bar-cafes, which is hurting business. So is a renewed crackdown on drunk driving, with cops apparently staking out cafes to catch tipsy drivers.

Anyone that spends any time in France, Paris or elsewhere, quickly comes to see that the cafe culture, dying or not, is something one can only admire about the country — how people seem to carve out time in their day for it, which of course is time carved out for food and drink and conviviality. There’s a reason why Hemingway’s A Movable Feast is so evocative of a certain time and place.

Now we have this arresting fact from the Times piece: Two bar-cafes close every day in France. In 1960, there were 200,000 of them countrywide; today it’s fewer than 41,500.