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Are the French Changing?
Last week, the French turned out by the thousands to strike over everything. It started with Air France, but others joined in to express solidarity. Unless you happened to be near the Place de la République where the demonstration took place, Paris residents and tourists weren’t seriously (if at all) affected.
Even though the trains, Métro and the RER weren’t running, one out of two buses was operating and there were plenty of taxis. Besides, walking in Paris is one of the city’s major delights in spite of the unseasonably cold weather. Stores and restaurants were open (perhaps a few employees were unable to get to work), and yes, even parts of the Louvre were accessible to the public. The Mona Lisa was, as always, open for business and drawing visitors in like flies.
Government offices were closed, but in France, c’est normale. It would be sacrilege for those employees not to honor a general strike. Most private firms were open, and if people were able to get there, it was business as usual. Meetings might have been delayed, but they were held.
And yet strike day felt as if it were almost a vacation day for people who were able to get from one quartier to another. So, although the strike was serious, the consequences were not to arduous for those trying to get around— or la grève n’était pas trop grave.
However, the possibility for gloom still exists. A few of us got together for lunch with Alain Neyman, founder of Les Restos, a first-rate restaurant-booking site. Naturally, we discussed the food. But the economy was very much on everyone’s minds and tongues.
The French are feeling the economic crisis, not as severely as many Americans, who have maxed out on their credit cards and live from paycheck to paycheck. But this is changing fast, since the French economy and Paris are so dependent on tourism. Americans aren’t making beelines here while they watch their savings and retirement plans dwindle by the week—and their jobs are taken away, thousands by thousands, in massive lay-offs. Hotel occupancy is down and were it not for residents of the EU, hotels and restaurants would be singing the blues. As it is, they’ve lowered prices hoping to entice people to come to France and eat out.
During our lunch discussion, a couple of comments were (for me) startling. Alain and the others stated that restaurant personnel are no longer as professional as before. Veronique Andre, Madame Figaro's restaurant critic, said she could no longer spend two hours eating lunch at a bistro. Those days are over, as people need to increase their productivity.
Are there fewer restaurants opening? Neyman said no—but most of the new restaurants are being opened by young chefs who were second in command in a Michelin starred restaurant and have decided to strike out on their own. Neyman explained these restaurants generally seat between 25 and 40 diners and can operate with minimal staff. The chef, perhaps a prep-chef/dishwasher and a waiter (often the chef’s partner), work the front of the house. But they have to move and move quickly.
Will these restaurants last? Some will and some won’t. But the ones that do won’t cost a fortune. Wine lists will feature more moderately priced wines in addition to more expensive selections. All restaurants now have wines by the glass. More are featuring pre-fixed menus at both lunch and at dinner.
Restaurants are gearing up for fewer tourists. But they’re also aware the French are eating out less frequently. Uncharacteristically, dinners out are being reserved for special occasions because many people have less disposable income for non-essentials.
With 3-star chefs like Olivier Roellinger and Jacques Lameloise handing back their stars, some may see this as the demise of the grand three-star Michelin restaurants where there’re more personnel than clients. Others of us view this as making meals more accessible to people who aren’t super-rich or have unlimited expense accounts.
What do you think?
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