The American press has recently reported on the current butter shortage in France, and some fear that bakery-made croissants are facing extinction. Even king cake, a delicacy shared by family and friends every January, is said to be under threat.
Whenever the U.S. media turns its focus to the French way of life, it is important to separate fact from fiction. It is true that the French are the world’s leading butter consumers; its breakfast food, cuisine, and pastries mean France uses 338,000 tons of butter a year — almost 18 pounds per person, per year. But alongside this longstanding national passion, world butter consumption is increasing, driven by changes in diets and the emergence of new markets. In the United States, animal fats previously demonized by dieticians have now been revealed to be good for health. And in China, the population is discovering butter and pastries, which are held as a sign of westernization and prosperity.
Meanwhile, however, the production of milk is sluggish. The 2016 figures in France were mediocre, and mechanized processes have taken hold as fewer and fewer farmers are choosing to go into dairy farming. Prices have skyrocketed as a result, and butter has shot from €4.30 per kilo in 2016 to €7.20 today.
This trend is characteristic of shortcomings in the French economy. Consumers do not understand that prices rise when a product is less available. The United States accepts the regulation of the market by price. France does not. The French government may well try to interfere, but in vain; the problem has no solution as the cost of milk is dictated by distributors and supermarkets that “protect” consumers by providing consistent prices. As a result, producers refuse to sell their milk at a discounted price, while consumers refuse to pay extra for it. What’s more, they panic-buy butter in fear of shortages, which only worsens the situation.
This tale of disappearing croissants may seem anecdotal, but it reveals the rigidity of the French economy — a trend that dates back to the 17th century when Colbert, Minister of Finances, wanted to control everything. When Turgot, a minister of Louis XVI, attempted to free up the flour market to end speculation on grain a century later, it helped spark the French Revolution. In modern France, Macron is caught between the same two choices: Liberation or legislation?