Pluralism and the tabac

5th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

The tabac sign is almost as clichéd a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower. Sylvie Briand explains why these cafes-cum-cigarette shops-cum-bistros are increasingly being bought up by French-born Asians who are changing the face of this traditional French venture.

A major sociological shift is underway in Paris as the traditional 'bar-tabacs' are being bought up by French-born Chinese.

You know you're in France when you see one of these

The phenomenon is one highly visible sign of Parisian pluralism, as 'immigrants' from French provinces increasingly give way in many traditional small businesses to immigrants from overseas.

According to the Tobacconists' Union, around a quarter of the capital's bar-tabacs are now run by Chinese owners as the original proprietors move out of what they see as an increasingly unprofitable business.

"At least 50 percent of sales of bar-tabacs over the last year have been to French nationals of Chinese origin," says Gérard Bohelay, president of the Tobacconists' Union (Chambre syndicale des débitants de tabac de la région), which represents some 33,000 'buralists' from all over France.

The Chinatowns of Paris

The Chinese -- and immigrants from other Asian countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos -- have been a significant presence in the 13th arrondissement of Paris since the late 1970s when the 'boat people' started arriving from Vietnam.

*sidebar1*Now entrepreneurs born to these families -- but in France -- are moving out of the Paris 'Chinatowns' into new neighbourhoods and new businesses.

With more than 4,500 Asian restaurants in Paris, the market for the most traditional business venture pursued by Asian immigrant families –- opening a restaurant –- is becoming saturated.

In the past few years, the word has gotten out in the Asian community that the tabac can make for a profitable alternative.

The Tobacconists' Union says that the tabacs of France reported more than EUR 30 million in revenues in 2000; the sale of cigarettes accounted for EUR 13.1 million of that.

As the sale of tobacco is regulated by customs, the creation of new tabacs is carefully controlled. Tabac owners don't risk a competitor moving in down the street; sales may be modest but steady as most customers automatically frequent the tabac closest to their apartment.

Chinatown in the 13th: not beautiful, but bustling

The Auvergnats give way

The Parisian tabac has long been a business associated with immigrants—-although those immigrants used to come from outside Paris but still within France.

"It used to be people from Auvergne (in central France) or Brittany who came up to Paris to open bistros. Now it is increasingly the Chinese who are taking over these family businesses. The customers cannot see any difference," said  Bohelay.

He adds that the Chinese share a similar business reputation as the Auvergnats: hard-working and clannish, often combining all the family's funds to open the business and then working together rather than hiring employees off the street.

In a bar-tabac on the boulevard Port-Royal in the Montparnasse quarter, young Chinese waiters serve a group of middle-aged clients beers and the traditional Parisian croque-monsieur. In a corner, owner Hugo Jin takes charge of cigarette and lottery ticket sales.

"I used to be the owner of a Chinese restaurant. But the competition was too strong, I couldn't make ends meet. With bar-tabacs at least there are trading rules. Prices are regulated," says Jin, who took over the cafe in 2001.

"Things could be better here, but we are managing. I am doing it for my children who are aged one and two. I don't want them to have to do what I am doing. It's not a career. I have to work 13 hours a day," Jin says.

Changing the model

But, with cigarette sales declining with each generation, the Chinese aren't afraid to innovate to boost profits.

*sidebar2*At a bistro -- the Verre à Pied -- nearby to Jin's bar-tabac, the owner Claude Derrien says he can "understand perfectly well why the French are selling up to the Chinese."

"I have had this bistro for 22 years and my profits have been going down constantly," Darrien says. "Mainly it's because cigarette sales are falling, but there are also all these cheap restaurants that are springing up like mushrooms. As a business, it just doesn't work any more."

He continues: "The Chinese who buy up the bar-tabacs put a lot of money into video games, lottery sales and so on."

But while Darrien is not, exactly, resentful about the influx of Asians into his business, he does wax regretful about the changes the new owners are bringing. "Whether we like it or not, that is the way things are going. The traditional bistro that we used to love may not be here for long."

October 2005

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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