A source close to the prime minister of France, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that he understands why it might seem curious to an American that boulangeries are considered “essential to the life of the country” when supermarkets fill the need for basic food. But “French people don’t even think to ask” why boulangeries remain open, he says, because these shops are so deeply embedded in French culture. He added that all small food businesses, including cheese shops and wine stores, also made the cut.
The decision to allow these shops to remain open may have been in part because people living in some tiny rural towns only live near small shops. This explanation was echoed by several French friends, who added that the French government may be trying to preserve as many traditional mom-and-pop shops as possible. (The French government fined Google 150 million euros, or $ 167 million, last December for advertising practices that could penalize small businesses.)
Just because boulangeries have remained open during the coronavirus crisis doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. Workers from three boulangeries in my neighborhood tell me that sales and traffic at their stores have been cut roughly in half since the start of the pandemic. This observation is supported by data: An April 14 survey of boulangeries by the Federation of Boulangerie Businesses found that sales in the last two weeks of March were 61.5% lower than they were at the start of the coronavirus crisis.
Patricia says that the same regulars are buying bread, but they’re coming less frequently and instead stocking up at each visit. Olivier L., the owner of the boulangerie where I get my weekend croissants, tells me that a lot of his clients left Paris for their countryside homes, so to compensate he has shut down his shop between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. instead of remaining open all day and reduced the amount of food he prepares. For now, these measures have been enough to keep his three-employee shop afloat, despite a 50% drop in sales. But he fears other consequences.
Olivier is very worried about getting sick, especially after a wave of COVID-19 cases swept our neighborhood a month ago. That likely included my husband, my daughter, and me, although we’ll never know because there aren’t enough tests in France for us to have gotten tested. He’s understandably wary of the many customers who don’t wear masks and touch surfaces inside the shop, and of accepting cash. As the confinement wears on and the weather gets warmer, he feels that locals are increasingly lax about social distancing and hygiene measures. “Last Saturday, with the warmer weather, I saw lots of people going for walks in groups of two or three, without masks, in shorts and flip-flops. You’d think they’re on vacation,” Olivier says. Still, he’s never considered shutting down his shop. “When you have a business like this, you don’t ask yourself whether you close or not because you’re scared,” he adds.
These changes are of course impacting boulangerie employees in addition to the owners. Nora, an employee at another nearby boulangerie, tells me her workweek has been cut from six to three days. Patricia’s shop has two workers instead of three behind the counter, because the third has asthma and took (paid) sick leave to avoid getting ill. Thankfully, Nora and Patricia aren’t too concerned about making ends meet if they do have to take time off after getting ill with the coronavirus. They’re already benefiting from French employment laws that favor workers. During the crisis the government has further simplified an already robust unemployment program to minimize layoffs. Businesses can now apply for workers to receive “partial unemployment,” or around 84% of their net hourly salary for any hours not worked. For minimum wage workers, it’s 100% of their net salary, up to 35 hours a week. The business will then get at least partially reimbursed by the French government. About one in three workers had taken advantage of the program as of April 17. Every French resident also has access to free government-subsidized health care, even if they lose their job. In mid April, French courts even forced Amazon to suspend nonessential deliveries in France for failing to have sufficient worker protections against the coronavirus. These kinds of benefits involve a lot more government in our private lives than we’re used to in the United States. But such programs seem increasingly rational and humane in trying times.
No matter where in the world you live, we’re all fumbling through the same frightening and unprecedented moment. The social distancing measures we know are necessary for our species have made us feel more alone. The physical distance from my closest friends and family has amplified that loneliness. I’m spending more time than ever with my mom on Skype, after she was forced to cancel a scheduled trip in April to see my 19-month-old daughter. We don’t like to think about how long it will be before international travel is open again and we can plan her next visit. In this chasm, boulangeries have brought me comfort. My family looks forward to our daily bread. The brief moments of human contact and the small pleasure of a warm baguette bring consistency to our days and help remind us that we’ll hopefully savor life even more after the pandemic ends.