Let's drink !

Revolutionary cafés, suburban cabarets, cabarets with dazzling balls, brasseries open all night: the bistro has a rich history which tells us of entertainment and riots, but also of the solitude of today's enclave areas.

A work of synthesis, Pascal Ory rightly describes in the preface the work of Laurent Bihl on the popular history (in the sense of the totality of a people) of the bistro bistro used here as a generic term to designate the heterogeneous set of drinking establishments. This synthesis is based on a rich bibliography of scientific works, on literature ranging from the anti-cabaret discourse of XIXe And XXe centuries to recent publications in the press on the place du bistrot in our time, or even on the novels of authors like Balzac or Zola.

Four major parts punctuate this work, the first of which is devoted to the revolutionary and imperial café, the second the contrasting evolution of bistros during the era of industrialization and the democratization of society at the time. XIXe century, the third the history of the bistro in the first half of the XXeboth the apogee and the beginning of its decline, before a final part which deals with the process of disappearance of a large part of the bistros since the Liberation and the current strategies of the bistros in the fight for their survival.

The centrality of the tavern keeper

The number of bistros increased from around 100,000 at the start of the Revolution to the staggering figure of 500,000 in 1938, or one for every 82 inhabitants.! At the time of the Liberation, their number fell to 300,000, before falling to 35,000 in 2020. The bistros then deserted the countryside and the suburbs, leaving a Sidral vacuum in many enclave areas.

It is this eventful history of bistros that Laurent Bihl tells, evoking the various forms of these establishments, the luxurious decorations of the great cafés on the Parisian boulevards, their modernization, such as the introduction of electricity, or even sanitary improvements. The author does not forget the character of the tavern keeper, whose profession is often associated with agricultural or artisanal activity. A central figure within his establishment, which requires great professionalism, he often takes on the role of social confessorjust as it represents an important source of information, particularly in the countryside.

In the cities at least, some can count on the support of café waiters, a corporation which was first founded in the large boulevard cafés and is defined by specialized customs, professional dress and culture. Long despised and exploited, this category sought to win rights through social movements in 1936 and 1937. Today, however, it is no more than a student jobconsidered a small job.

Eviction of women

Strong social segregation characterizes bistros. It was only during the revolutionary era (and even before) that the bistro landscape experienced a certain social mixing, and again in the XXe century, when breweries brought together the various social categories. We could add that in these cases there is social segregation internal to the establishments, a fact which also concerns country cabarets where dress, conspicuous consumption and the practice of certain games underline the social rank and define the place of the guest. But, in general, the grand boulevard café stands out from the working-class caboulots of the popular suburbs, an opposition found everywhere in French cities.

Let us not forget, in this context, the increased presence of young people in cafes from the 1960s onwards, a means of escaping parental authority, imposing their culture in certain places, before disappearing again at the start of the XXIe century.

If frequenting bistros can still have a family and feminine dimension following the revolutionary era, the female sex is gradually being ousted and the presence of women in a cabaret is closely associated with prostitution. All they have left are the taverns and cabaret balls. Likewise, some workers do not hesitate to enter cabarets in groups. But, in general, the only woman you can meet in a cabaret is the cabaret owner, a widow who has taken over her late husband's business.

When women, fully involved in industrial production during the Great War, began to frequent cafes again, they immediately encountered the criticism of female alcoholism, co-responsible for the social movements of 1917. garonne of the 1920s, just like a woman alone in a café today, remains the object of a bad image. For men, on the other hand, the bistro remains the place of their virilization for a long time.

From Guignol to pinball

The bistro represents a capital place for entertainment, first in the form of games, ranging from billiards, even animal fights, to pinball in the 1970s. Dancing is part of the life of taverns, and is found in cafes and cabarets in the form of of wild balls, before the creation of rooms and annex complexes, intended for waltzes, polkas, tangos etc.

The bistro is also a place of spectacle: Guignol was born in a Lyon café at the beginning of the XIXe century, while the terraces of Parisian boulevard cafes can be transformed into stages for various artists. The show is part of certain cafés, such as the Chat noir Montmartre, and even today, these establishments offer theatrical performances and other artistic and literary forms. Music in turn invades these spaces in the form of songs from guests, goguettes and other singing societies.

Under the July Monarchy, the café-concert developed. Spontaneous singing, sometimes improvised, is gradually disappearing, giving way to organized, mechanical music, jukeboxes in the 1960s, playlists today.

The bistro is an important place for sociability in all its forms, as much for writers, artists, journalists, as for workers for whom the cabaret becomes a temple At XIXe century. The various artistic and literary scenes are found in certain bistros, such as la bohème or les surrealistes, setting the fashion for establishments in the Latin Quarter, Montmartre, Montparnasse and the Germanopratin space. The café also offers the space necessary for community life, initially in the form of circles and societies, before transforming into meeting places for veterans, sports clubs, or even shooting societies, bowls, hunters, etc.

A place of sedition

The bistro can constitute a place of transgression, in the form of violence, clandestine games, prohibited betting, black market, drug trade and other prohibited meetings and activities. The pimps can find an ally in the person of the tavern owner, authorizing clandestine prostitution in his business. It thus becomes an object of more or less strict surveillance and control.

It is not only the more or less criminal activities, but also the political dimension of the bistro, which explains the authorities' concern for surveillance and control. Since the Revolution, or even before, the bars have been a place of political acculturation, a character that they will keep until after the Liberation. A place of information thanks to the character of the tavern keeper and the press found there, but also a place for the circulation of rumors that are often unjustified, as in rural cabarets during the Great Fear, this place of seditious remarks can be transformed into a place of sedition.

Its role in the various revolutions of XIXe century is indisputable. The café and the cabaret thus constituted an important ally of the triumphant Republic at the end of the 1870s. From 1880, the bistros transformed into simple places of discussion, open to all political tendencies. The labor movement uses it as a center of its activities, not only for meetings, but also as a hiding place for fleeing activists. It remained, after the founding of the Labor Exchanges, a center of militant sociability.

The bistro also became a refuge for the many political refugees seeking salvation in France. The Resistance used it for its secret meetings during the Occupation, just like the collaborators. And again in May 68, the café was able to offer protection to students fleeing police fury.

On alcoholism

Let's end with the main element which characterizes the life of the bistro: drinking and the question of the bistro's responsibility for the alcoholism of society. During the first decades of XIXe century, it was above all an adulterated wine that guests drank in bars, before industrialization allowed the consumption of other alcohols, as well as sweet wines as well as absinthe and other pastis.

The sharp drop in prices, making these drinks accessible to all, caused wine consumption to double between 1830 and 1839, while that of absinthe exploded during the Belle Poque. Even in 1953, the French consumed three times more alcohol than the Italians. The State, taking advantage of the overconsumption of alcoholic beverages on the one hand, seeks to limit consumption on the other, as did the government of the Moral Order in 1873 and the Vichy regime after the national disasters that occurred in 1870-1871 and in 1940, including alcohol. would be one of the main culprits. However, if Laurent Bihl notes the capital role that the bistro plays in the alcoholization of society in XIXe and during the first half of XXe century, this responsibility falls today on the cheap sale of alcoholic drinks in supermarkets, and consumed in a private sphere.

As a place of both political activism and popular drunkenness, the religious, intellectual, political and economic elites made the bistro one of the privileged targets of their moral critiques, which were also shared by the leaders of the labor movement at the end of the XIXe century. The loss of its political character, the decline of bistro drunkenness, as well as an awareness of the importance of coffee for social life and cohesion, have completely changed this image today, when territorial administrations fight for conservation, even the reopening of bistros.

It is this fascinating story that Laurent Bihl traces, offering a sort of essential manual for any researcher looking into one of the aspects of the bistro universe. We can regret too much concentration on Paris, particularly in the section on the XIXe century, or the absence of a more anthropological approach to the guest. Some errors of appreciation (Saint-Monday is not only a day of drinking among workers) or of dating (the famous speech of Camille Desmoulins in front of the Café de Foy at the Palais-Royal dates from July 12, 1789), as well as some gaps in a vast bibliography, do not change anything from the initial observation. All that remains is to hope for a work offering a comparative approach with the pubs of the British world, the taverns of the Germanic world, etc.