Global stories, local voices

|| France: Suspended Times

Tell me what you eat, I'll tell you where you're confined.

By Marine Samzun and Hélène Corbie

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

During lockdown, our consumption patterns have been pushed all over the place: three meals a day at home, street markets, canteens and restaurants closed for business. Paris-based for one (Marine), hunkered down in a farm in Normandy for the other (Hélène), we investigated the issue of consumption in times of quarantine, moving up the supply chain, from the Parisian plate to the Normandy countryside.

Monday 27th of April 2020. Armed with a shopping bag, hydro-alcoholic gel and a home-made mask, I brave the supermarket just around the corner: a large "Carrefour City", its fluorescent green letters radiating amidst the Parisian buildings. I live in the 12th arrondissement of Paris: a residential area, neither chic nor popular, just in-between. Closely followed by a mini trolley of the same fluorescent green, I wander the narrow alleys, slaloming between suspicious customers and employees emptying boxes as the products disappear from the shelves. Used to the Porte Dorée street market, I head — with an air of resignation — for the fruit and vegetable section. While I am expecting to find carrots from Italy and radishes from the Netherlands, I come across strawberries, tomatoes, apples, onions... all proudly grown in France. "Yes, there are more and more French fruits and vegetables on shelves," confirms a masked employee stacking the (French) lettuce. In the meat department, the same phenomenon: red-white-and-blue labels stuck all over the cellophane-wrapped trays. "I try to eat ‘local’ as much as possible!" says Sylvie, a 57-year-old mother of two children, living in the building next door. According to a Harris Interactive survey, 77% of French people will have consumed more products of French origin during lockdown. And what about Sylvie? The only thing that has changed for me is going to the supermarket instead of the street market ". Welcome to the club. 


Following the announcement of the lockdown by President Emmanuel Macron, I took the first train home to the family cattle farm in Normandy. The lockdown has robbed us of our sources of income: the borders and most of the slaughterhouses are closed. There is an excess of animals and we have to feed them, with a depleted hay stock and scarce grass. This is the reality for many farmers, who are feeding their livestock at a loss, even though these same animals are ready for human consumption. 

Out here in rural France, I go shopping at the small Carrefour supermarket in Conches-en-Ouche. As I look at two beef ribs under cellophane in the butcher's department of the store, a friend calls me out: "You're not going to buy Irish meat, are you? Surely not you?" My eyes slide down the label and I notice that the meat is indeed 'origin: Ireland'. No French beef to be found in the whole section. We aim at offering meat at a fair price to our customers, French meat is too expensive ", I am told as I advance down the aisles. I am shocked: the cattle of thousands of breeders are trampling meadows and stables while our stores are selling foreign products.


" French strawberries at cost price ", " Roast veal from France ", " Bouchot mussels from the Breton coast Back in my Parisian apartment, I unpack my groceries while listening to the radio: the retailers seem to have spread the word, bludgeoning the ears of quarantined consumers with " French origin " and " at only 4.99€ a tray " products. Strangely enough, there is no mention of Irish meat or Spanish tomatoes... To find out for sure, I call Thierry Desouches, the spokesman for the Système U supermarket group. " We're all doing one-off operations at the moment to support farmers: strawberries, asparagus, lamb, veal, " he confirms. OK, but then how do you explain the Irish meat that Hélène found on the shelves of her supermarket? " We serve all types of customers: we also have to offer ‘budget buy’ products and a leg of lamb from New Zealand will always be cheaper than one from France: it's a question of volume. " When I tease Mr Système U about retailers’ responsibility, he answers: "If we no longer sell Moroccan tomatoes, which are half the price of French ones, tomatoes will become a product for the privileged few, and we also need to cater for lower-income folks


"You should go for the short food supply chain," says Frédéric, owner of the bakery La Belle Tradition, 5 km from my farm. On April the 3rd, the family posted a message on their Facebook page: "Are you interested in setting up a fresh dairy products section?". "If you settle for local products, it's a great idea!" commented some people from Ventoux, but also vacation residents, delighted at the idea of not having to take the car to get supplies. "The short food supply chain works like a charm! It's a trend of course, but it's a state of mind above all," continues Frédéric. Since the beginning of the quarantine, sales have tripled and their customer base has increased by around 30%. "Everyday we’re winning new customers, since we opened five months ago. For sure, the lockdown has given us a boost," explains the manager, before proudly showing me his range of local products. There are dairy products from L'esprit Normand, honey from Aurélie, chocolate from Cluizel, the pigs are raised on straw a few kilometres away too... Not to mention the flour, which is Label Rouge — a mark of quality in France — and made only with Normandy wheat.


And the short food supply chain goes all the way to the Parisian suburbs! "La Ruche qui dit Oui !" founded in 2011, acts as an intermediary between 200 "carefully selected" producers and "beehives", i.e. distribution locations close to these producers. At Hervé Debreu's La Ruche, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, you can also find "local" products: from coriander micro-pods by La Belle Pousse in Saint Denis (5 km) to farm-made yoghurts by chez Jubert in Seine-Maritime (111 km). Hervé has seen his orders double since the start of the lockdown. "Some customers no longer want to go to supermarkets for fear of catching the virus. They also have more time and are more flexible about delivery times. And some are really keen to support the short food supply chain," explains Hervé. Since March, the home delivery offer of "La Ruche qui dit Oui !" for Ile-de-France has gone crazy: "the number of daily orders has leapt from 100 to 700," explains Grégoire de Tilly, the boss of "La Ruche qui dit oui !".


That's why the "drive-through" concept has also fared well during this crisis. Six kilometers from our farm, Grohan's Farm produces organic fruits and vegetables. Because of the lockdown and to cope with the rush, they too had to reinvent themselves. This is the "drive" system that Stéphane and Claire, the manager and his partner, decided to set up. The farm's shop is open every Wednesday and Friday afternoon and drive orders are limited to 20: "The quota is almost reached for each round and customers even book a week in advance," Claire explains. The experience is a real success. Patrick, 57 years old, picks up his order placed on the internet 2 days earlier: "The lockdown allowed me to understand how the short food supply chain functions and I intend to continue."


On the large retailer side, the success of the drive system has also been confirmed to me by Mr Système U, Thierry Desouches: "Sales through drives have jumped by 30%",he assures me, "without a doubt, this will continue, we must adapt to these new habits.". Ok, so more drive and a more obvious desire to support small producers through local food networks... But is this a lasting trend or a one-shot wonder?


To answer this question, we have to look back a few years ago. "The crises of 1992 and 2008 saw a shift towards buying made in France products. But the old habits came back really fast," explains Pascale Hébel, director of the consumer and business division of CRÉDOC (Observatory of living conditions). According to the researcher, even if the lockdown has allowed a new segment of the population to buy through local food networks, the proportion remains a minority (24% of the population was already accustomed to using these local networks). "One factor weighs particularly heavily, and that is the question of income levels. We tend to forget about the other part of France. These are French people for whom the cost of housing can weigh in at up to 80% of their monthly budget. "In times of crisis, inequalities grow and we don't realize the economic damage that will hit the poorest folk," warns Pascal Hébel.


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About the author

Marine Samzun
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As a multimedia journalist, I am eager to meet people in the field in order to highlight inspiring initiatives in the world of ecology and solidarity. Texts, podcasts or videos: I like to vary the way I treat my subjects in order to raise the reader's awareness, surprise and question him.

Hélène Corbie
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Daughter of peasants, I held my first camera at the age of 12 to tell the world in pictures. My favourite subjects: agriculture, ecology, resource management, territorial inequalities... As a versatile journalist, I am a photojournalist, editor, presenter and editor if necessary, after several experiences in the news in France and in foreign offices. Co-director of "Maman, j'ai raté l'actu !", a podcast for 8-12 year olds, I lead media education workshops.