French revolutionary rule keeps Paris bakers baking
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In order to ensure the capital's constant supply of baguettes and croissants, Parisian bakers are obliged to take their holidays either in July or August – under rules dating back to the French Revolution.
The presence of bread – which holds an almost mythical importance for the French – has been guaranteed in the capital since the chaotic and starving days of the French Revolution.
“Let them eat cake,” Queen Marie Antoinette allegedly quipped when told the poor had no bread to eat. Their hunger and anger was to be one of many catalysts in the bloody overthrow of the French monarchy.
And to avoid the possibility of another revolution, the state has since ensured that modern Parisians have no need to rise up for lack of a fresh baguette. City bakers now have strictly regulated summer holidays and are expressly forbidden to abandon the capital en masse and leave behind a potentially dangerous bread vacuum.
The rules go back to the Revolution, when in October 1798 baker Denis François was lynched by an angry mob for not opening his shop.
Fearing future rioting, that year's Constituent Assembly passed a military law allowing the authorities to forcibly commandeer bakeries and therefore keep the masses in bread.
“It was the city’s staple food,” said a spokesman for the 21st-century city authorities. “Its availability to all citizens had to be totally guaranteed.”
The right to bread – and beaches
Echoes of the 1798 law still govern the city’s 1,200 bakeries, which supply Parisians with their daily dose of baguettes and croissants.
In 1956, national legislation was passed guaranteeing all workers – including bakers – a minimum three weeks off every year. It meant that bakers could finally enjoy the Parisian summer tradition of escaping the sweltering capital for weeks on end.
But with freedom for the bakers came the responsibility of putting bread on citizens’ plates. The authorities amended existing legislation in 1957, giving town halls in the Paris region the power to regulate bakeries’ opening hours.
This law was updated again in 1995, by which time French workers were entitled to five weeks off.
The capital’s bakeries are now split evenly into two carefully selected groups – one that can close in July, and the other whose owners can make a dash to the beach in August. They swap around every year.
“The aim is to make sure there is bread everywhere,” said Dominique Aract of the Paris Chamber of Professional Bakers. “We can’t expect people to have to jump in a car to go in search of a loaf of bread.”
The bakers don’t mind – even if there are fewer customers, there is also less competition – and they generally stick to the rules. No more than 20 formal complaints are made every year about bakeries not being open.