Parisians On Hunt For Baguettes As Bakers Get Nod To Take Vacation

Aug 25, 2015
Originally published on August 25, 2015 5:50 pm

In a bid to cut down on bureaucracy, the mayor of Paris has scrapped an arcane law that required bakers to inform city hall anytime they wanted to close up shop.

When the measure was passed by the Assemblee Nationale, or French parliament, in 1790, lawmakers wanted to make sure certain situations never repeated themselves. A long-term bread shortage, for example, was one of the factors that led to the 1789 French revolution, according to Stephanie Paul, a historian and Paris tour guide.

"We have to understand that for the poor people in the 18th century, bread was their main staple of food," Paul says. "In 1775, bread is so short that people around France are attacking not only boulangeries and mills, but also farmers themselves, trying to get more grain."

Because of the 225-year-old law, every July and August, when Parisians leave the city en masse, bakers have staggered their vacations so that every neighborhood is assured a supply of fresh-baked baguettes.

But now that the law is no more, some fear allowing all the city's bakeries — or boulangeries — to be closed at once could deprive Parisians of a good baguette during the month of August.

The French love of bread is no exaggeration. Visit Paris and you'll actually see people walking around holding long baguette loaves.

Lucas Zelie, 23, is one of them. He walks through Saint Germain with his dinner and breakfast baguette tucked tightly under his arm. Zelie says he didn't know about the law, but figured bakeries had some arrangement between each other in summer.

"In my neighborhood, there's two bakeries and one is open when the other is closed," he says.

Near the Eiffel Tower, boulangère, or breadmaker Sandra Kerzazi runs an artisanal bakery. She says that's exactly what bakers used to do — get together and decide who would cover July and who August.

But not anymore. Kerzazi says it was always hard to get a high-quality baguette in August, but this August it's particularly difficult.

The situation is worrying enough that Le Figaro newspaper assured its readers there would not be a penury of pain in the capital this summer. The head of the French bakers' union said the biggest threat was not a lack of baguettes but a lack of customers in summer.

"What you see here, this whole street, that's Paris in August," says Parisian Corinne Mellul, who pulls a grocery caddy past a series of shuttered stores. "Outside the tourist spots, it's totally empty."

Mellul says every Parisian who stays in the city in August is concerned about how far they'll have to walk for a decent baguette — and some other necessities.

"It's the same for cigarettes," she says with a laugh. "Even though I know that's not a sexy item."

Mellul says there are a lot more bakers in Paris than there are licensed tabbaconists, the only place you can buy cigarettes. And they also close in August.

"If you're a smoker, that can be a real, real problem in the middle of summer," she says.

Riding through my little neighborhood, I saw that all four boulangeries were closed — with little handwritten signs taped to the door saying: "We'll reopen August 31st." But upon closer inspection, one of the bakery's hand-scrawled signs said something else entirely. It turns out it was only closed for the evening, not for the month.

"You see, it's rare enough that they put up a sign," Mellul says. "They're going to stay open all of August and they're letting you know about it by putting up a sign because it's extraordinaire!"

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How much do the French love their baguettes? Even more than they love their summertime off - and that is really saying something. Just after the French Revolution, lawmakers required bakers in Paris to inform the government before they close their shops for vacation. Why? So locals could always find an open boulangerie and fresh bread.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The mayor of Paris recently scrapped that law in a bid to reduce bureaucracy. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, even after 225 years, some Parisians still fear all the bakeries might close at once, depriving them of a good baguette in August.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Historian and Paris tour guide Stephanie Paul notes that a long-term bread shortage was one of the factors that led to the 1789 French Revolution.

STEPHANIE PAUL: Bread, we have to understand, for the poor people, was their main staple of food. In 1775, bread is so short that people around France are attacking not only boulangeries and mills, but also the farmers themselves, trying to get more grain.

BEARDSLEY: To make sure that never happened again, in 1790, lawmakers voted that bakeries could not all close at the same time. So every July and August, when Parisians leave the city en masse, bakers have staggered their vacations so that every neighborhood is assured a supply of fresh-baked baguettes.

SANDRA KERZAZI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Breadmaker Sandra Kerzazi runs a bakery just next to the Eiffel Tower. She says fellow bakers used to get together and decide who would cover July and who August, but not anymore.

KERZAZI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It's always been hard to find good bread in August," she says, "but this year, it's especially difficult." One newspaper assured its readers there would not be a penury of bread in the capital. The head of the French bakers' union said the biggest threat was not a lack of baguettes, but a lack of customers in summer. I went to check out the situation for myself.

Well, in my neighborhood, in a one square-block radius around my apartment, are four boulangeries. It's the middle of August, and I'm going to go and see how many of them are open.

All four are closed. Two have little handwritten signs taped to the door saying, we'll reopen August 31.

CORINNE MELLUL: What you see here, this whole street, that's Paris in August - totally empty.

BEARDSLEY: Parisian Corinne Mellul is pulling a grocery caddy past shuttered stores on what's usually a busy shopping street. Mellul says in August, Parisians are always concerned about how far they'll have to walk for a decent baguette and some other necessities.

MELLUL: It's the same for cigarettes. I know it's not a sexy item, but you have a lot more bakers than you do (speaking French) where you buy your cigarettes. If you're a smoker, that can be a real, real problem in the middle of summer.

BEARDSLEY: As we make our way down the empty sidewalk together, we pass one of the boulangeries I thought was closed for the month. Turns out, it was only closed for the evening. Upon closer inspection, the hand-scrawled sign in its window says something else.

MELLUL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That's rare.

MELLUL: Yes, but you see, it's rare enough that they put up a sign. They're going to stay open all of August, and they're letting you know about it by putting up a sign because it's extraordinaire.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris in August. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.