Call to mind an image of France, and alongside the Eiffel Tower and buttery croissants, you’ll no doubt think of a cozy bistro with dim lighting and street-side tables. Yet these cafés are becoming harder and harder to find: In the last 50 years, the number has dropped from 200,000 to 40,000 due to the rise of fast-food restaurants and a shrinking clientele.
In light of this loss, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a €150 million ($165 million) rescue plan for 1,000 cafés, reports the Associated Press. The money will first be funneled into struggling or shuttered cafés in villages with a population of less than 3,500, where residents are left with winnowing places to meet and socialize. At present, Groupe SOS, the Paris-based body dedicated to deciding which cafés or towns get what money, is sorting through applications from mayors; the first beneficiary of funds will be reopened before the end of the year. (Villages can apply here.)
But Groupe SOS isn’t planning to just toss bistros some euros and call it a day: Instead, they help cafés add postal services and Wi-Fi, and even develop them as places where residents can get help with paperwork like tax returns. In doing so, the government’s hope is that the cafés’ expanded use will make them more of a draw for clientele of all sorts.
Though Macron’s investment in the country’s cafés has been widely welcomed, some see it as a not-so-subtle attempt to mollify France’s “yellow vest” protesters. As Lyndsey Matthews previously reported for AFAR, the political movement is tied to frustrations over economic inequality between rural and urban communities. By focusing first on rural areas that feel they’re getting left behind, the French government is not only saving cafés but making a statement, too.
After all, cafés aren’t just struggling in rural France—even Paris has seen a decline: Three decades ago, bistros and street cafés comprised half of all the restaurants in the city. Today? They make up just 14 percent, according to Reuters, a number so alarmingly low that the nonprofit “Bistrots et Terrasses de Paris” is trying to get the bistros UNESCO protection.