The Observer

The Staff of Life Can Be the Stuff of Rebellion

In France, bread is more than a mere consumer product – as shown by the recent crisis sparked by supermarket baguettes sold at just 29 centimes.
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© Hervé Pinel

The news reverberated across the country: A major French supermarket chain was slashing the price of the baguette to a paltry 29 centimes (around 32 U.S. cents) – three times less than the reported national average – in response to a dramatic rise in the cost of living. Announcing the cut via a nationwide campaign this January, the Leclerc group also promised to maintain the rock-bottom price for six months by taking a hit to profits. The reactions were swift and, in some cases, heated. A rival supermarket followed Leclerc’s lead, albeit reluctantly, while another refused adamantly to be drawn into a price war. In parallel, industry groups representing farmers, bakers, and flour millers vented their anger. In a joint statement highlighting ever-rising input prices and production costs, they slammed the markdown as a deliberate attempt to destroy value. Consumer reaction – widely reported in the media – was torn between delight at the cost cutting and wariness of the motives.

The story has huge resonance in France, where the baguette is more than just a consumer staple. Indeed, the iconic loaf is slated for inclusion on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (The French gastronomic meal already made the list, along with Congolese rumba dancing and Polish bee-keeping.) According to legend, the baguette was invented at the behest of Napoleon so that his soldiers could transport their bread ration easily while on the march. Another – and farther-fetched – story is that bakers in the early 1900s were ordered to produce a loaf that could be hand-broken rather than knife-cut in order to prevent deadly skirmishes among rival construction gangs building the Paris metro. The true origins are more prosaic: a combination of rising demand among wealthy city dwellers for daily fresh bread, and a shift to modern baking techniques relying on yeast rather than sourdough as a leavening agent.

After World War II, when food rationing was lifted in France, the baguette became universally popular, according to the American historian Steven Kaplan, an expert on the history of bread in France. Today, buying a fresh loaf is a daily ritual (though few people tuck it under their arm, as per Woody Allen). The very serious Observatoire du Pain, an industry group, estimates that the country’s population of 67 million consumes 320 baguettes every second, or 10 billion per year. To quote the national bakery and confectionery union, the loaf is both the emblem of France and its “economic thermometer.” Which is why price is a touchstone issue, both socially and politically.

The importance of bread is, er, baked into French history and culture. The language teems with old proverbs and axioms like manger son pain dans sa poche (“to eat bread in one’s pocket,” i.e. to be selfish) and Il sait son pain manger (“He knows how to eat bread,” he may be poor, but he’s smart). In contemporary usage, expressions such as long comme un jour sans pain (as long as a breadless day) and bon comme du bon pain (good as good bread) are common currency. In political idiom, the two most important things in life are encapsulated in the slogan Liberté et pain cuit (Freedom and baked bread).

Of course, bread has always been political and a key factor in populist uprisings in France. Indeed, public unrest and riots caused by grain shortages – “No bread, no peace!” – were recorded as far back as the 16th century. In Steven Kaplan’s view, French history has largely been forged by the contrast between the populace, who ate dark loaves made from rye or oats, and the middle and upper classes, who feasted on wheat-based white bread. Those tensions, and the fundamental importance of bread as a staple, triggered a seminal period in French history. In 1775, grain shortages and a resulting famine sparked the so-called Flour War, a spate of rioting and raids on granaries. Louis XVI ordered grain merchants to sell their stocks at cost, earning him the nickname le boulanger (the baker). But four years later in 1789, as the shortages persisted, rumors that the king was hoarding grain in the royal palace caused an uproar. An angry crowd marched on Versailles to the cry of Nous ne manquerons plus de pain ! (No longer will we want for bread!) (It was then that Queen Marie-Antoinette went down in infamy for suggesting that people starving for want of bread should eat cake instead – though she probably never uttered the phrase, and the actual French word isn’t gâteau but brioche.) Le boulanger and his wife were dragged back to Paris – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The symbolic and enduring link between political legitimacy and bread was officially forged during that period. For more than 200 years thereafter, to ensure the populace received its daily ration and thus to maintain the peace, the public authorities controlled not only how much bakers could charge but also when they were entitled to a vacation – the only professionals other than pharmacists to be subject to such rules. While price controls were scrapped in 1978, the other restrictions remained in place until the mid-2010s. Official action was also taken on several occasions to maintain bread quality. As bakers sought shortcuts to make baguettes more quickly by relying on frozen, pre-made dough, legislation was passed in 1993 to control the permissible ingredients. Underlying these and other initiatives is the idea that the provision of good bread should be considered a public service.

Which brings us back to the shockwave unleashed by the 29-cent supermarket baguette. Anyone who has shopped in a French big store can testify to the Pavlovian reaction triggered by the fresh-bread smells wafting from the bakery section, placed strategically in the back. More importantly, the quality of supermarket-baked loaves in France has increased substantially in the last decade, partially thanks to technology. So much so, according to Steven Kaplan, that the quality of la baguette du supermarché now rivals – and sometimes surpasses – that of loaves made by independent bakers. Now, the rivalry between industry and artisanship, which has been intensifying for years, has entered a new dimension.

While foreigners might be puzzled at the brouhaha over Baguettegate (especially the readers of one English-language newspaper, whose automated translation tool rendered baguettes as “chopsticks,” the word’s second-level definition), the reaction here in France is completely understandable. Aside from historical and economic considerations, Leclerc’s price cut coincides with the passage of a new law to protect farm incomes. During preliminary negotiations for the statute, dubbed “EGalim 2,” food producers demanded the right to pass the higher cost of agricultural commodities along to distributors. In this context, the president of the main farmers’ union condemned Leclerc’s move as an outrageously provocative PR stunt and a frontal assault on EGalim 2.

Another industry group expressed deep concern for bakers in rural areas who are directly endangered by the price cut, which it denounced as a marketing ploy. The threat to la France profonde – the French heartland – is likely the overriding concern. “If the baker in a village near a Leclerc store loses 150 baguettes monthly for four months, they’ll close up shop,” warned the head of a cereal growers’ cooperative, “and the place will become a ghost village.” For his part, Leclerc’s pugnacious CEO is refusing to back down: He called out the cereals industry for refusing to take responsibility for higher consumer prices, and later announced that he was not only maintaining his policy but would also cut prices on other products, notably pork. Thus are the battle lines well and truly drawn.

In the midst of a presidential election, not to mention a frighteningly tense geopolitical situation, going to war over the price of a baguette might seem trivial. But some would do well to remember the sage advice that the economist Turgot gave to Louis XVI before the monarch’s downfall: Ne vous mêlez pas du pain – Do not meddle with bread!

 

Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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