The Market Debate, Part 3: Inside a Local French Market

french food market paris vegetables

The Saxe-Breteuil market in Paris

The traditional French market, or “marché,” is a historical fixture in French culture and daily life.

A society dedicated to food quality and tradition, the local market is one way the French connect and interact with their nationality; it is an identity performance, a way of sustaining a relationship with traditional foods, the land they came from, and the people who grew them, all of which are specifically French.

One of the earliest examples of a traditional French market was Les Halles, created in 1110. Over the centuries the market grew and transformed to reflect the contemporary market format as a space for buying and selling local foods and products. Today, the food market that once bustled at Les Halles has been relocated in favor of a large commercial shopping center, perhaps an accurate representation of the reorganization of French consumer culture. But despite the meteoric success of supermarkets and fast food, there are still numerous local markets thriving throughout France. This is partly due to gastro-tourism, which contributes significantly to France’s multi-billion dollar tourist industry (European Commission Country Report), and partly due to the fact that markets are still an integral part of French life and identity. In Paris there are several markets in each arrondissement serving different populations, and all are unique. Some feature organic products, some showcase a specific product (i.e. fish or produce), some include vintage or handcrafted items as well. They all attract hundreds of people weekly, who still consider the local market a permanent and important part of their routine.

This past Sunday I took a trip to my local market. I try to go every weekend because they offer unique products that are better quality than the ones at Carrefour. I also thoroughly enjoy the process of walking between the stalls, looking at the fresh products, and speaking with the producers about them. This video depicts my typical Sunday at the local Asniéres-Sur-Seine market:

Last post I shared my experience shopping in the French retail giant Carrefour. In a direct comparison of the two videos, two things stand out to me:

  1. Environment: Carrefour is sterile, stacked with endless products nearly indistinguishable from one another. You see plastic and advertising everywhere. The local market is full of colors and food, the thing actually being sold. It’s showcased beautifully and you can see everything you are going to buy; sometimes the price isn’t even advertised.
  2. Interaction: For some reason, the shopping cart everyone pushes in Carrefour acts as a buffer between them and the rest of the world. No one converses, no one asks for help from store workers, and it seems like a very individual endeavor. At the local market, it is necessary to speak with the producers, and not always just to tell them what you want – for example, when I bought Girolle mushrooms, the producer gave me tips on how to cook them. The protocol here is to speak with the producer before handling and examining products; often you must wait in line to be helped. People bring their families; the local market is a social, community event in which people are interacting and connecting with each other over food.
market food paris france mushrooms cheese bread chocolate paté figs

Local market haul: (from left to right) loaf of pavé céréales bread, dark chocolates, paté grand mére, girolle mushrooms, fresh chevre, and figs.

I purchased the same five items as last week: a bread, a vegetable, a fruit, a meat, a dairy product, and a dessert item. I bought a €3 loaf of “pavé céréales” baked that morning at a local bakery. For the dairy item, I picked up a fresh, dripping round of chevre, taken from the container it was produced in and given to me for €3.95. The man who produces the chevre has a local farm west of Paris. For a fruit, I got a small basket of figs for around €2, and my vegetable was a beautiful handful of girolle mushrooms for about €6, with few free culinary tips. For the protein I purchased a locally-made paté, scooped from a dish and cut to my specific instructions; I got one thick slice for €4. And for my dessert, I purchased several dark chocolate truffles from a Parisian chocolatier for €3. My grand total was around €21, €5 more than I spent at Carrefour. But despite the extra cost, I felt that my experience at the local market was overall more enjoyable, educational, and pleasant than at Carrefour. I was able to speak with members of my local community and learn a bit about the products I was eating. I left feeling excited to cook and share the high-quality food I had purchased.

But is the local market really the same showcase of high-quality French regional products it once was? Globalization brings imported food items from elsewhere that might be a lot cheaper than the artisanally-produced French product, and in wake of the recession and subsequent financial climate in France, many consumers are shopping based on price rather than quality. One problem that local markets face is a potential decline in quality due to small-scale producers’ financial hardships in competition with the large-scale industrial food giants. It is simply becoming less and less profitable to be an artisanal producer, and thus many are turning to cost-cutting mechanisms such as selling supplementary products (often bought at the supermarket) at marked up prices. I saw several stalls at my local market selling pre-packaged ethnic products, brands of cheeses widely available in any supermarket (for example, Président cheese or Grandlait milk). The factors that draw French consumers away from local markets and into supermarkets are the same ones driving them to fast food: less money in a struggling economy leads to more work in an attempt to combat high unemployment rates and falling wages, which means less time and money overall to spend on dining and shopping. Local markets are affected by this changing consumption pattern, and resorting to alternative profit-creation methods or simply quitting altogether.

col des aravis small scale dairy farm French alps

Col des Aravis, a small-scale French dairy farm in the French Alps; an example of the type of artisanal producer that sells to specialty buyers and directly to consumers at the local market.

Experientially, the local market is beyond comparison with the supermarket. It is the obviously more enjoyable way to purchase your food. But can it survive in the face of globalization and shifting consumer demands? Is it a truly viable form of food distribution that will survive through the reorganization of the global agro-food business? In my next post, I’ll address the potential future of food distribution in France, and discuss several new developments in the food world that may have an effect on the survival of local markets and small-scale producers.

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