LA CHAPELLE-EN-JUGER, France — The lights inside the village bakery used to come on before dawn, an hour or so before the smell of baking bread would waft into neighbors’ homes. The storefront door would soon be heard, opening and closing, the rhythm as predictable as the life stirring awake across the French countryside. But everything changes.
“Without bread, there is no more life,” said Gérard Vigot, standing in his driveway across the street from the now shuttered bakery. “This is a dead village.”
Two years ago, the 650 residents of La Chapelle-en-Juger lost their bakery, the last local business where they could meet one another, chitchat and gossip while waiting in line for their daily baguette or their weekend éclairs. For the community, the closing of the bakery was “un drame,” as one newspaper put it, or a tragedy, one that is being repeated in countless French villages.
Young people are no longer drawn to the long hours of the traditional bakers who live above their store. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains. Customers, especially the young, are not eating as much bread.
Traveling in rural France these days means spotting closed bakeries, the faded paint on old windows and doors giving an indication of when the lights went out. It means encountering people mentioning with visible relief that their village still has one. Like in La Chapelle-en-Juger, the bakery is very often the one business that clings on after the disappearance of the butcher shop, the grocer or cafe.
Given the centrality of bread in France, and its links to its religious practices and political history, the vanishing of traditional bakeries has also come to symbolize the waning of the country’s rich village life — one with the kinds of characters and stories that yielded the material for novels like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,’’ set in a fictional village in Normandy, where La Chapelle-en-Juger is.
La Chapelle-en-Juger lies in the coastal department of Manche, where American flags can often be seen flying to commemorate the Allied invasion of World War II. Since the start of the decade, about 50 traditional bakeries have closed in Manche, leaving about 370, and 20 more are expected to disappear in the next year, according to the Chamber of Trades and Crafts in the department.
“An unprecedented wave of bakery closures,” one local newspaper said with alarm. But a quick scan of the headlines in local newspapers reveals similar “tragedies” in many corners:
A village near Dieppe “desperately looking for a baker.”
In Lozère, a “village rendered destitute without its bakery.”
In Loire, “a collection to save the only bakery in Jonzieux.”
In Prisches, “the mayor does not want a village without a bakery.”
In Lot-et-Garonne, “a bakery in the hot seat.”
Or simply: “The village without a baker.”
Vending machines have sometimes popped up in towns where bakeries have closed. In Gratot, a red machine sat in a quiet parking lot on a recent morning.
A few miles away, on the side of a busy country road in La Vendelée, Vincent Lenoir’s daughter hopped out of their minivan to get a premade baguette from a machine that resembled a telephone booth.
“It’s the best,” Mr. Lenoir said of the bread’s taste. But the vanishing bakeries, he added, are “killing our villages.”
Without a bakery, La Chapelle-en-Juger was turning into a lifeless bedroom town, some residents said.
“Our little village is dying,” said Hélène Collard, whose family has lived in the village for four generations. “We’re no longer in contact with the other inhabitants. It was the only meeting point left.”
The number of bakeries overall is increasing in France, especially in big cities. In Paris, people walking home at the end of the day, munching on a bit of baguette, remains a part of the cityscape.
But traditional mom-and-pop bakeries in rural areas are disappearing quickly — sometimes at a rate of four percent, or even higher, within a single year.
Few countries keep such extensive data about bakeries as France does.
Half the nation lives within 1.4 miles of a bakery, “as the crow flies,” according to a 2017 government report. In cities, 73 percent of the population lives within less than a half-mile.
How long do the French take to reach their bakery? According to the national bakery and confectionary association, the average trip to a bakery takes 7.4 minutes on foot, by car or with another mode of transportation. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or 9.4 minutes in the countryside.
In La Chapelle-en-Juger, Mr. Vigot, 71, used to cross the street to the bakery. Now, he drives about two and a half miles to the small town of Marigny-le-Lozon, where he always buys two boules and a sliced loaf.
“I always add a little brié,” he said, referring to a traditional Normandy bread, “and on my way back, I eat it like a cake.”
Between 30 and 40 residents of La Chapelle-en-Juger now buy their bread at Jeannot and Valérie Culeron’s bakery in Marigny-le-Lozon. Despite the positive effects on his business, Mr. Culeron, 48, who began his career as an apprentice at age 15, worries about the overall trends.
“When villages lose their bakery, they cry, ‘What a tragedy!’” Mr. Culeron said. “But they have to be willing to walk the talk.”
Many now go to their local bakery only on weekends, he said, while they used to shop every day. Customers were more loyal, he said, in part because bakers played an important role in celebrating major life events.
“We were there for baptisms, communions, weddings, and we made their yule logs,” Mr. Culeron said.
On Sundays, people were taught that Jesus was the bread of life. At home, they carved the sign of the cross into bread crust before the start of the meal. Children were admonished never to put a loaf on its back because “you don’t earn your bread while lying on your back.”
“That’s how I was raised, and how I’ve raised my children,” said Fabien Rose, 46, who lives within a stone’s throw of the old bakery in La Chapelle-en-Juger. “That’s why the bakery has an enormous place in a village — because bread is life.”
After everything in La Chapelle-en-Juger, except for the church tower, was razed during World War II, it was rebuilt with two grocery stores, a butcher shop and a bakery.
When the couple who had owned the bakery for nearly two decades called it quits in late 2017, Nelly Villedieu, the mayor since 2001, sprang into action.
In the country where bread shortages helped trigger a revolution, Ms. Villedieu was aware of bread’s sensitivities: She herself had never purchased bread outside La Chapelle-en-Juger.
“Politically, it wasn’t possible,” she said.
A worker was hired, at 30 hours a week, to deliver bread to the village where it was sold between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The service was discontinued a year later because of the cost and criticism that the hours were inconvenient.
The municipality spent 130,000 euros, or about $144,000, to buy the building that had once housed the bakery. Now it is considering loans of as much as €40,000 for the purchase of a used oven and other baking equipment, Ms. Villedieu said, as well as low rent.
Without public assistance, a bakery would not be viable in such a small village, the mayor said. But La Chapelle-en-Juger is still studying the feasibility of the project, conscious that many other villages had spent money to resurrect bakeries only to see them rapidly wither away.
“It’s a gamble for us,” Ms. Villedieu said.
But it was a gamble that she felt she had to take.
“In the French spirit, for a long time, we had to provide bread,” Ms. Villedieu said of elected officials.
Two months ago, some 80 people gathered in front of the old bakery to call for its reopening. The group’s leader, Nicolas Bourdier, said that the mayor’s office was moving too slowly — a charge that annoyed Ms. Villedieu.
Some villagers stayed away from the demonstration for fear of offending the mayor.
“Things got a little tense,” said Monique Vigot, who is married to Gérard Vigot.
Mr. Bourdier agreed with the mayor on at least one point.
“We consider the bakery a municipal service,” he said. “We feel that it’s something that’s owed to us.”
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