Rising energy prices and inflation are pushing bakers in France to their limits. Many already had to close. Two bakers in Paris share their concerns in times of crisis.
Story by Jana Prochazka
Paris, the city of love, the Eiffel Tower, wine and …. the baguette. France is famous for its baguettes, respected and acknowledged worldwide since November when it was named an intangible cultural heritage. But are the people who make the baguette as appreciated by the government as their product? Many bakeries in France are suffering from rising energy prices and have been driven to the brink. Where in 1970 there were 55 thousand bakeries in France, today there are only around 33 thousand left.
One of the struggling bakeries is Sainte-Périne in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. Albin Prebay, the owner, has had a rough year and can almost not afford to keep his bakery open anymore. “We don’t make a profit, the business is very upsetting”, he says. He opened his bakery five years ago when the business was thriving. But then the covid pandemic hit and he lost a lot of customers. When the covid situation got better in February 2022, Prebay felt very happy, but now, a new problem has arisen. Due to the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis and inflation, even basic products like sugar or eggs got more expensive. Their prices increased by at least 20 up to 100 per cent. But for Prebay, the fact that he now pays four times more money for energy is the most “painful” thing: “The amount of invoices is so high, that we struggle to pay at the end of the month.” Because of that, he has a large negative balance in his bank account.
The rising costs have not only hit him hard, he has also had to draw consequences for his bakery. He increased his prices twice, once in August 2022 by 10 to 15 per cent and once again in November 2022 between 5 and 10 per cent. “We tried to remain selling our products without increasing prices until July, but then we had the invoice of energy, gas and electricity which meant that over summer we lost so much money that we decided, we have to increase the prices”, Prebay explains. However, he can’t increase the prices too much as most of his clients are students from the university nearby.
Remaining uncertainties about government aid
As of January 2023, bakeries in France receive additional support from the government. Small or medium-sized businesses like Prebay’s can apply for a “shock absorber”, which can cover up to 20 percent of energy bills. On top of that, the government is capping energy prices, so that they will rise by a maximum of 15 per cent this year. France’s power suppliers have agreed to offer small businesses struggling with price rises a guaranteed tariff of 280 euro on average per megawatt hour.
The latter is no help for Prebay’s bakery because he pays 210 euros per megawatt hour. Still, he is trying to negotiate a new contract with his energy supplier. Just like getting governmental help, it’s very complicated. The government asks for a lot of papers and figures to proof the exact financial situation of the business. “It’s so bureaucratic, it’s crazy”, Prebay adds. “I wish more reactivity to difficult situations from the government for small companies like us, we have so many things to do and if they ask for so many documents it takes a lot of time to collect everything. I just want something easier, faster, it’s too complicated.” Prebay has not received any financial help yet. It is also not clear how much he will get and when it will arrive.
Price increases not the solution to compensate for rising costs
Even larger, more successful bakeries are feeling the ever-increasing prices. Christophe Vasseur, owner of du Pain et des Idées, a bakery in the 10th arrondissement in Paris, is considered to be one of the best bakeries in the city and he has plenty of customers. Still, last year was no walk in the park for him either. Just like Prebay, he pays four times more for his energy and the ingredients of his products are on average up to 60 percent more expensive than before the war. However, he has not increased the price of his baked goods. “We didn’t increase the price of bread for three years and I’m not going to do it this year, because come on, it’s bread”, Vasseur states. Instead, he raised his salaries by eight per cent. “That’s for me more a priority than letting customers absorb the increase.”
Even though Vasseur’s bakery is in a good financial place, he is disappointed in the government. “We can’t rely on the government; it feels like they don’t really care about us.” Vasseur says, that spring will be very tough for many bakeries in France. “If half of the bakeries are still alive after this, it’s a miracle”, he admits. “I’m really astonished by the fact that we didn’t have a revolution yet. People are becoming mad and upsetting. We are all sitting on a bowel of powder. The question is not whether it’s going to explode, is a question of when. And it’s going to be huge.”
Fast solutions are needed
Despite the struggles, both bakeries are looking into the new year quite optimistic Albin Prebay is confident to find a way to make ends meet with his bakery: “I’m sure, we’ll find a way but it’s true that it’s not a very easy situation. I’m having trouble sleeping because I’m always thinking about finding solutions. I just wish the end of the war and all the chaos connected with it.” Vasseur only estimates a decrease in profit but thinks his bakery will survive – in contrast to many others. “We’re still okay, we are a healthy company. But not everybody is like that, so good luck for the others.”
Now it’s a matter of waiting to see exactly when the government’s financial aid will come and how much it will be. Unfortunately, just naming the baguette as an intangible cultural heritage is not enough for the bakers. If the art of the breadstick is to be preserved, a quick response is needed. Otherwise, the baguette as a cultural asset could be lost and the Eiffel Tower in Paris could soon be the only trademark in France.