France is in the midst of a modern-day culinary revolution.
From 1960 to 2008, 160,000 French cafés went out of business. McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are growing in popularity, while traditional restaurants are falling amidst claims of poor quality and staggering prices. So what’s happening to the French restaurant as we knew it, and what does its future look like?
The restaurant as a modern institution can be traced back to post-revolutionary France. Cooks and guildsmen formerly employed by the French monarchy found themselves in need of a new occupation. They began cultivating a dining experience that served the civilian population with the same finery and sophistication previously exclusive to aristocrats, an appropriate response to the revolutionary creed of the time. Restaurant dining became a statement of democratic freedom from an unjust monarchy, a demonstration of equality and fallen feudal barriers. From these deeply political beginnings, it is not surprising that the restaurant, in France and around the world, has persevered as an institution that seeks to convey a certain image – one of prestige, luxury, and social collaboration. However, a new kind of restaurant has developed in the modern world: “fast food” provides us with consistent, cheap food served quickly and oftentimes taken to go.
This shift in the nature of restaurants has affected French dining culture deeply. Once considered the gold standard of culinary experiences, French restaurants are now
struggling to provide quality dishes at reasonable prices. A 2013 report by the French Union of Hotel Skills and Industries claimed that approximately 85% of French restaurants use pre-packaged or frozen food. This lead to the July 2014 implementation of a new law requiring restaurants to indicate with a designated logo which dishes are “fait maison,” or “homemade.” So what is causing French restaurant quality to slip? The deeply complex mechanisms responsible for the changing nature of French restaurants can, arguably, be simplified into several key points:
The industrialization and globalization of food and agriculture introduces cheaper ingredients that are not necessarily fresh or local.
Economic recession coupled with rising unemployment rates in France leaves citizens with less money to spend on food and less time to eat in restaurants.
The introduction of fast food provides a cheap, easy alternative to the traditional restaurant experience – thus acting as competition for French restaurants and serving the changing needs of the modern French citizen.
The common thread that runs through all three of these key points is globalization. Many French skeptics see globalization as “Americanization” or, even more severely, “McDonaldization” – ultimately a cultural imperialism leveled by the United States. But even without the introduction of McDonald’s and fast food (which have both been wildly successful in France – 54% of restaurant spending in 2013 reportedly went to fast food, and France is the second largest consumer of McDonald’s globally) would the French restaurant in its traditional form persist in the modern world?
Post-revolutionary French restaurants and modern French restaurants both serve the socio-political and economic needs of the general public. In the late eighteenth century, these needs were reflected by access to luxury and sophistication; today, French citizens increasingly crave convenience, affordability, and efficiency. Consumers pressured with the increasing demands of an interconnected society find themselves pressed for time and money, and turn to fast food (or at least, faster food) as a natural response to a new socio-economic structure. Restauranteurs need to keep profit margins high in a difficult economic period, and thus in a natural response to market forces, invest in cheaper ingredients.
Inarguably, a shift in French restaurant culture is taking place. But it has yet to be determined what this means for French culinary traditions, and the facet of French national identity so closely tied to cuisine. Many critics lament the “homogenizing” effect of globalization on French food. But the reality remains that France is integrated into the global economy and global civil society, and this cannot be reversed. Is the increasing popularity of fast food in France really a symptom of a culturally imperialist global system, or is it a natural response to shifting cultural and socio-economic needs?
I would like to argue that the persistence of French national identity through its cultural traditions hinges on fluidity and integration in the face of globalization. Fine dining and gastro-tourism are still alive and thriving in France; the reorganization of French restaurant culture is happening on the lower economic levels of everyday social life. A new culinary model has arisen to provide an answer to the challenges imposed by globalization; will France rise to the occasion and shift accordingly, or will it stay rigid in its assertion of the old French culinary model and give global corporations the task of satisfying its citizens?