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How much do the French love their baguettes? Even more than they love their summertime off - and that is really saying something. Just after the French Revolution, lawmakers required bakers in Paris to inform the government before they close their shops for vacation. Why? So locals could always find an open boulangerie and fresh bread.
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The mayor of Paris recently scrapped that law in a bid to reduce bureaucracy. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, even after 225 years, some Parisians still fear all the bakeries might close at once, depriving them of a good baguette in August.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Historian and Paris tour guide Stephanie Paul notes that a long-term bread shortage was one of the factors that led to the 1789 French Revolution.
STEPHANIE PAUL: Bread, we have to understand, for the poor people, was their main staple of food. In 1775, bread is so short that people around France are attacking not only boulangeries and mills, but also the farmers themselves, trying to get more grain.
BEARDSLEY: To make sure that never happened again, in 1790, lawmakers voted that bakeries could not all close at the same time. So every July and August, when Parisians leave the city en masse, bakers have staggered their vacations so that every neighborhood is assured a supply of fresh-baked baguettes.
SANDRA KERZAZI: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Breadmaker Sandra Kerzazi runs a bakery just next to the Eiffel Tower. She says fellow bakers used to get together and decide who would cover July and who August, but not anymore.
KERZAZI: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "It's always been hard to find good bread in August," she says, "but this year, it's especially difficult." One newspaper assured its readers there would not be a penury of bread in the capital. The head of the French bakers' union said the biggest threat was not a lack of baguettes, but a lack of customers in summer. I went to check out the situation for myself.
Well, in my neighborhood, in a one square-block radius around my apartment, are four boulangeries. It's the middle of August, and I'm going to go and see how many of them are open.
All four are closed. Two have little handwritten signs taped to the door saying, we'll reopen August 31.
CORINNE MELLUL: What you see here, this whole street, that's Paris in August - totally empty.
BEARDSLEY: Parisian Corinne Mellul is pulling a grocery caddy past shuttered stores on what's usually a busy shopping street. Mellul says in August, Parisians are always concerned about how far they'll have to walk for a decent baguette and some other necessities.
MELLUL: It's the same for cigarettes. I know it's not a sexy item, but you have a lot more bakers than you do (speaking French) where you buy your cigarettes. If you're a smoker, that can be a real, real problem in the middle of summer.
BEARDSLEY: As we make our way down the empty sidewalk together, we pass one of the boulangeries I thought was closed for the month. Turns out, it was only closed for the evening. Upon closer inspection, the hand-scrawled sign in its window says something else.
MELLUL: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: That's rare.
MELLUL: Yes, but you see, it's rare enough that they put up a sign. They're going to stay open all of August, and they're letting you know about it by putting up a sign because it's extraordinaire.
BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris in August.
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