PARIS—It’s a ubiquitous French icon, often spotted on picnic blankets and in the arms of commuting Parisians, cradled gingerly to avoid jabbing those who pass by.
But this August, the beloved baguette—that slender loaf with a crackling crust and chewy middle—may be elusive for some. For the first summer in more than two centuries, Parisian bakers can go on vacation whenever they choose.
The French government recently passed legislation intended to “simplify corporate life,” including the elimination of rules mandating that Paris bakers stagger their summer vacations, a legacy of the French Revolution. The prefectoral decree that governed bakery off-days dated to 1790, and the rule ensured that every neighborhood would maintain continuous access to the golden loaves.
Updated in 1995 and renewed every year until now, the law required half of Paris’s 1,100 bakeries to stay open in July and the other half in August. Bakers who violated the mandate were subject to a daily fine of 11 euros ($12) a day. But now that lawmakers have lifted the edict, more bakeries seem to have opted to shutter this month.
The law change has provoked British press to sound the alarms of a “baguette crisis.” Others in the French media have dismissed the alarmism spread by their neighbors across the channel, some noting that rather than a shortage, France’s real problem might be that people are consuming less and less bread. With the regulations gone, no official numbers exist on how many bakers remain open.
Vice President of the Professional Chamber of Parisian Bakers Pascal Barillon recently told journalists that bakers had “no interest in all leaving simultaneously.” Even though many bakers are taking a break, “you can still find bread pretty easily in Paris,” Barillon assured listeners.
On a recent weekend the queue snaked out the door of Coquelicot, one of the few bakeries still open in the heart of Montmartre, a quaint neighborhood swarming with tourists that overlooks the rest of the city. A mix of travelers and native Parisians fidgeted impatiently as they waited, the harried workers behind the counter rushing to fill orders.
Coquelicot owner Sylvie Fourmond told me she never closes during the vacation period, and this year was no different. “Making bread—it’s a service,” she said. “You’ve got to feed the Parisians.”
But while the deregulation of bakers’ vacations offers greater flexibility, it may well be making August harder on those who choose to stay open. Fourmond said keeping up with the demand has been exhausting her and her staff. “Making bread—it’s a service,” she said. “You’ve got to feed the Parisians.”
This past weekend, in particular was “infernal,” Fourmond said.
“There was a moment when we ran out of bread, there’s nothing I could do about it. But people don’t understand. People have this idea that we make bread in five minutes,” she said.
Fourmond doesn’t necessarily consider a constant stream of customers an advantage. She fears the quality of her products isn’t as high when she faces the pressure of annoyed customers tapping their feet in line, demanding faster turnaround.
Fourmond said she would welcome even more coordination among colleagues to make August run more smoothly. “We passed so many years with a Napoleonic law that meant the prefecture told us when we could close,” she said. “And now, all of a sudden, people are taking off when they want for the first time. Maybe we need to organize amongst ourselves a little better.”
Neighborhood resident Patrick Lucas approached Coquelicot unfazed by the line, saying that fresh baked goods were still worth a wait. More importantly, he added, even though bread is a French national right, so is time off.
“We’re in France, and there are also laws requiring that all people deserve vacation,” Lucas told me as he waited. “Even if commerce shuts down, it’s absolutely fair.
The current French government is socialist in name, but its actions have leaned closer to the center-right by French standards. The “simplification of corporate life” law that includes the end of bakery vacation rules is the most recent in a line of reforms intended to cut France’s notorious bureaucratic red tape. It followed a package of pro-business economic reforms forced through by President Francois Hollande and the economically conservative Prime Minister Manuel Valls, both socialist party representatives.
Many of the bakeries that remained open throughout August are in touristic areas, as is the case for Coquelicot. Lucas lives nearby, so it’s easy for him to procure his daily loaf. Still, he encouraged his fellow Parisians—and any anxious visitors—to savor August’s slower pace and embrace the fact that they might need to stroll a block or two further to find bread.
Even at the height of summer, a good baguette, bien-cuit of course, is still easier to find in Paris than anywhere else.