Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 09:21 UK

French shops face supermarket squeeze

A French grocer's shop in Paris

By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

France's many family-owned bakers, butchers and grocers are up in arms over the government's plans to make it easier to open supermarkets.

One thing which sets France apart from many of its European neighbours is the abundance of small shops, and the relative absence of supermarkets in many areas.

But President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to regain some of the popularity he has lost by lowering the cost of living.

So a bill aimed at modernising the economy is being put before parliament.

It aims to lift some of the current restrictions on opening supermarkets, and to abolish complex regulations which stop wholesalers giving bulk discounts to big stores.

It's the small local businesses which should be developed instead of making all shops the same
Joanne de Bades

At the moment they have to offer their products to all retailers at the same price.

The government says the changes will lower prices, stimulate economic growth and create more jobs.

"This is a very important law which aims to increase GDP growth by 0.3% a year starting in 2008, and to create 50,000 more jobs a year from 2008," says finance ministry official Marc Mortureux.

"It will encourage more competition, and purchasing power will go up, as prices go down."

But there are fears that it could lead to the death of the small shops which are a cornerstone of the French way of life.

The personal touch

Albert Azria, the owner of a grocer's shop on the Rue de Bretagne, a busy street in a fashionable, upmarket part of Paris, says the supermarkets have already killed off a lot of small shops and this new bill could wipe them out altogether.

"We're specialists and we do things the traditional way, serving the customer, explaining the produce and staying with the customer from the beginning to the end," Mr Azria said.

A French supermarket
The rising cost of food has put growing pressure on French shoppers

"That's what makes us different. But it's clear that the more supermarkets there are, the less of the cake there'll be for us."

But the government says there will continue to be room for small shops even if there are more supermarkets, because many middle-class people are prepared to pay a premium for a more personal service from the small shops.

Mr Azria encourages his customers to pick up fruit, smell it and even taste it. It certainly looks like top quality produce and he says most of it is grown in France.

One of his customers, Joanne de Bades, says the government ought to be helping shops like Mr Azria's.

"Small shops ought to be protected so there's diversity, not just supermarkets selling fruit and vegetables which come from all over the world and aren't grown by small farmers," she said.

"It's the small local businesses which should be developed instead of making all shops the same. There are already enough supermarkets."

The more supermarkets there are, the better prices we can have, because most of the prices have increased a lot
Laetitia Tulet

It is true that it is very pleasant to visit the small shops. You usually get a bit of banter with the shopkeeper and sometimes you can even strike up a conversation with the other customers.

But this kind of cosy commerce is beyond the means of poorer people, particularly those who live in the suburbs.

In Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, many people struggle to make ends meet, and the rising cost of food is making things even harder for them.

I spoke to Laetitia Tulet as she came out of a gigantic supermarket there.

"The more supermarkets there are, the better prices we can have, because most of the prices have increased a lot," she said.

Her feeling was echoed by a number of others I spoke to in Saint-Denis.

Balancing act

During his election campaign, Mr Sarkozy promised to increase people's buying power.

And he desperately needs to make good that pledge after what many people consider to be his disappointing first year in office.

But there is opposition to the retail reforms even within the president's own centre-right party, which tends to get the votes of many small shopkeepers.

So the government has scaled back the bill to get it through parliament.

Plans to open supermarkets will still need approval by local committees.

Even so, the Socialist-led opposition fears the reform could kill off small food shops and destroy the distinctive character of French town centres.

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