Centuries of stories lie behind Parisian cafe society

PARIS LETTER: In 1974 the French writer Georges Perec spent weeks ensconced at the Café de la Mairie on the Place Saint-Sulpice…

PARIS LETTER: In 1974 the French writer Georges Perec spent weeks ensconced at the Café de la Mairie on the Place Saint-Sulpice, describing everything he saw in a book entitled Tentative d'Épuisement d'un Lieu Parisien (Attempt to Exhaust the Possibilities of a Parisian Place). Nice work if you can get it, writes Lara Marlowe

If you've never spent an afternoon nursing a coffee or kir on a café terrace, you have missed an essential Parisian experience.

Perhaps the French would be less ambivalent about letting Turkey into the EU if they realised they owe their beloved cafés to the Turks. A visit by Suliman Aga Mustafa, ambassador of the Sublime Porte to the court of Louis XIV, started the first café craze in 1669.

The fashion was revived some 20 years later when an Italian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Le Procope, where the philosophers of the enlightenment would later meet, followed a century or so later by Balzac and Verlaine. The poet spent the last years of his life drinking absinthe at Le Procope, where he became something of a tourist attraction.


Today, laments Prof W. Scott Haine of University College, the University of Maryland, "cafés are increasingly museum pieces for tourists rather than part of daily life". But what a history. . . The Duc d'Orléans rented out the arcades of the Palais Royal to café owners in the last years of the ancien régime. Because the Palais was private property, revolutionaries were able to plot with minimal police surveillance.

It was there, 215 years ago next week, that Camille Desmoulins stood on a table in the Café de Foy and urged the crowd to storm the Bastille.

The only café in the Palais Royal which survived is Le Grand Véfour, all gold leaf and mirrors and today one of Paris's most expensive restaurants.

After the revolution, the bourgeois cafés moved to the grands boulevards, where the most famous, Tortoni's, was renowned for its ice cream. But the most intense café life, described by Haine in his book, The World of the Paris Café; Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914, took place in the poor neighbourhoods of the city.

"French workers lived in garrets and hovels," Haine explains. "The cafés were warm, well-lighted and a place of comraderie."

Archives show what an important role the café played in 19th century Parisian life. Between the 1860s and 1880s, café owners served as witnesses in nearly a quarter of all civil marriage ceremonies. The wedding party used the café for the reception and the same café owner was often called back to witness baptisms.

Until the 1970s, Haine says, "it was de rigueur for French workers to pop into a café for a glass of gros rouge on the way to work. You could smell the liquor on their breath in the metro." That has changed now, with more expensive wines replacing the old pinard. "The French drink a lot less and a lot better than they used to," Haine explains.

Café culture has nurtured French artistic and literary movements. Monet, Renoir and Pissaro discussed impressionism at the Café Gerbois in Montmartre. Cézanne, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec moved to the Nouvelle Athènes. In the early 20th century, Picasso, Modigliani and others followed the poet Apollinaire to Montparnasse.

"When La Coupole was built in the 1920s, the artists thought it was an obscenity; it was the equivalent of a McDonald's," Haine says. But a clever café owner invited the painters of Montparnasse to cover his walls with murals and La Coupole became the centre of French artistic life until it was bought by a restaurant chain in the late 1980s.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir made the Deux Magots and Flore, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the heart of the literary world. They went there for a simple reason: there was a chronic shortage of heating in France and the cafés were warm.

Students at nearby Science Po knew André Malraux could be found most days at the Flore; if you bought him lunch, Malraux discussed literature and politics for hours.

For the French, cafés were places of innovation. The Lumière brothers showed the first motion picture in the basement of the Café de Paris. Phonographs, television and flipper (pin-ball) machines made their first appearances in cafés.

Haine is writing a three-volume series on Paris cafés in the second World War, cafés in cultural and intellectual life and cafés in the 20th century. Though they are certain to remain a Paris institution, he feels saddened by the plummeting numbers, from 45,000 in the 1880s to perhaps 7,000 today. The main reason is the demise of their principal clients, the working class.

"Today's streets are merely passageways for cars," Haine says. "It's quite novel and depressing."