MONTESSON, France — Forget, for a moment, those quaint French shops where le boulanger makes and sells his baguettes, le boucher dispenses cooking tips with his meat cutlets and everyone has time to chat about the weather.
Now take a walk down the road here to Carrefour, a windowless, featureless one-story building spanning the length of three football fields. Inside, young price checkers whiz about on roller skates, reporting to 70 checkout clerks by walkie-talkie headsets. Thousands of shoppers push carts through the aisles, snapping up everything from apple tarts to kitty litter to computers.
That is shopping the way the French more often do it. And therein lies a dilemma that has come to preoccupy this nation, creating a stark choice between economic reality and cherished national treasures that has rattled the French self-image.
The neighborhood boulangerie, boucherie, fromagerie, patisserie and poissonnerie are disappearing, ignobly sentenced to death by increasingly price-conscious, time-pressed shoppers. Forcing those shops out of business are the hypermarches, or hypermarkets, such as the Carrefour in this western Paris suburb.
In the past five years, 2,000 of the country's 37,000 small bakeries have closed. But hypermarkets, introduced here in 1957, have sprouted like mushrooms. Today, France has more than 1,000, twice the number of a decade ago and, for its population, the most in Europe.
The government, riding to the rescue of the small merchants, is slapping tough new restrictions on what it disdainfully calls "these big money-making machines." Decrying "the dictatorship of the hypermarkets," the National Assembly is moving quickly to adopt laws limiting hypermarket construction and banning sales of "abusively low-priced goods."
The result has been a raging debate between the would-be saviors of yesteryear's charm and the ordinary shopper, who is joined, of course, by the hypermarkets themselves. Supporters of the new laws say such extreme measures are required to protect a valued French icon from the greedy hypermarkets. Opponents see yet another case of crude government interference in the marketplace that will lead only to a higher cost of living.
Bernard Morrot, editor of the mass-circulation newspaper France-Soir, recently blamed the woes of small merchants on "the anarchist consumer. All these crude people see is that their bag of potato chips is cheaper at the hypermarket. They don't care about the rest." (Still, even Morrot's newspaper ran a survey that found an overwhelming majority of consumers oppose the ban on low-priced goods.)
In fact, most French shoppers are deeply conflicted. They sniff at crass commercialization in America, which they see as a free market run amok, and they lavish praise on their neighborhood stores. But the convenience and low prices of the hypermarkets are hard for even the well-heeled to ignore. More than half of French food purchases are made at larger supermarkets.
"Morally, I know it's not right, but the hypermarkets are so convenient," said Ann Margarit, who lives near Montesson. "I just don't have time to go from here to there for my shopping."
But she hopes the new laws will remove some of her guilt. "Even if I have to pay more, it has to be," she said. "If we don't do this, the small merchants will disappear and our small villages will die."
Life here, as in other postindustrial Western societies, is undergoing remarkable change. With the economy in a slump and unemployment hovering at 11%, the French are spending less money.
In addition, the growth of two-career couples has changed shopping and eating habits; many now rely on fast-food outlets for their evening meals. Few have the time for a daily shopping trip, once a trusty feature of French life. Instead, they stock up in weekly runs to the supermarket and supplement those trips with rarer visits to the local mom-and-pop merchants.
Just as America's malls and warehouse stores devastated Main Street, the French hypermarkets have appeared on the outskirts of cities and siphoned off trade from town centers. The hypermarket aisles contain such a vast array of nonfood items that few local merchants have been immune.
"It's an economic, political and cultural issue," said Claude Fischler, a food sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "We already have villages in this country that have been totally deserted by their inhabitants. We have to find some way of getting into the next century without abandoning huge parts of this country."
On the other hand, he added: "Let's not get into a nostalgic singsong. There are a number of traditional small bakers who make very poor breads. And there are new entrepreneurs who are making bread on a semi-industrial scale that is just as good."