ST. BRICE, France — Once upon a time, this was just another quiet village in the Oise Valley north of Paris where people did their shopping the French way.
When they wanted bread, they went to the baker. When they wanted milk, they went to the creamery. When they wanted meat, they went to the beef butcher or the horse butcher. And so it was with fish, pastry, wine and so on.
After several stops, which always included a ritual handshake with the shopkeeper followed by an exchange of complaints about one's liver problems and other ailments, the shopper had the ingredients for the evening meal.
About 10 years ago, modern townhouses began to sprout in the pear orchards at the edge of town. By 1981, St. Brice had its first supermarket.
Since then, things have changed so radically in this once-quaint little village, as in hundreds of such places all over France, that culture purists are worried that the country is in danger of losing a piece of its soul.
Napoleon described England as a "nation of shopkeepers," but until recently the description had been more true of France. In 1988, for the first time, the French bought more than half of their foodstuffs (51.4%) at supermarkets and the even larger "hypermarkets," rather than at the traditional small shops. This milestone set off alarms all over France and has recently become the subject of worried television documentaries.
"These little shopkeepers are the people who give life to a city, who animate its streets," said Jean Royer, 69, the longtime mayor of Tours in central France.
As minister of commerce in 1973, Royer pushed through a law designed to protect the \o7 petit commercants\f7 from encroachment by supermarkets and their even bigger kin.
The "Royer Law," which requires a special jury--half of its members shopkeepers--to approve the construction of a large supermarket, was an attempt to calm militant shopkeeper movements that flamed into violence periodically until the early 1970s.
Lately, however, even Royer admits that the law has been largely ignored and ineffective in stemming the tide of the modern food distribution system. "It needs to be updated to prevent the anarchical proliferation of the huge stores," he said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, the number of supermarkets and hypermarkets--at least 27,000 square feet of sales space, but some much larger--has increased sharply.
In 1960 there were only seven supermarkets in all France. At the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Commerce listed 6,493 supermarkets and 747 hypermarkets. In that period, an estimated 100,000 small shops closed their doors.
According to the Ministry of Commerce, for the past seven years there has been a net loss of 20 small businesses a day in France.
The main attraction of the supermarkets and hypermarkets is, of course, price. Because of their larger volume, the supermarket can offer lower prices than the specialized shop, the hypermarket even lower prices.
Increasingly, the little food boutiques where knowledgeable shopkeepers guide the customer to the best Camembert, the spiciest blood sausage, the golden tea cake perfect for dipping into lime-flavored tea, are concentrated in the wealthier neighborhoods of the major cities. Bourgeois central Paris is one of the few places in France where most residents have plenty of specialty shops but little access to supermarkets.
"The specialized stores that resist are the ones that go upscale," said Claude Fischler, a French sociologist who specializes in food habits at the Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "The trend is not substantially different than in other countries. Quality tends to go upscale in the market, and you have to pay the price for it."
Fischler and other food specialists have little sentimentality about the disappearing specialized food store. Fischler blames the image of France as a nation of shopkeepers on a "mythology" created by foreign, particularly American, food writers.
"I remember attending a meeting of the American Institute of Wine and Food two years ago in Dallas with one of these famous food writers," he said. "She came out with the most amazing statements about France. She gave a picture of the country that was that of 17th-Century Europe as seen in Walt Disney World. She said literally that this was a nation of farmers and shopkeepers. But if you look at the figures, you find that the farmers are way under 4% of the population. Shopkeepers are not that much more important. There is no reason why France shouldn't accept modern food distribution. The only reason it didn't happen earlier was the Royer law."
Here in St. Brice, the STOC supermarket that opened in 1981 was small by American standards, only 11,000 square feet, but it offered residents an opportunity to buy most of their foodstuffs under one roof, with no handshake and no talk of liver ailments. Several of the town's small shops were forced out of business by the competition.