France's restaurants and French cooking are under attack. The enemy comes from within—and wears a white hat.
This week, a French food blogger was issued an absurd fine of more than $2,000 for publishing a negative review of a restaurant there.
But it's the country's controversial "fait mason" law, which also debuted this week, that best demonstrates the troubled state of the country's restaurants.
The professed purpose of the law is to promote fresh French cooking, which has been on the wane for years.
More than half of the country's restaurant revenue last year came from fast food restaurants and sandwich shops. One figure claims nearly one-third of restaurants and bistros use packaged ingredients to prepare meals. A poll taken last year suggests the number is much higher.
Despite—or thanks to—this data, nearly three-quarters of French polled state that they're happy with restaurant meals there.
The fait maison law, passed earlier this year, requires all restaurants throughout the country to put the word homemade—"fait maison"—on menus.
So just what constitutes "homemade" under the law? Food may be labeled as fait maison "only when it's made in-house from fresh ingredients."
That sounds simple—if costly and pointless. But it's an annoyingly complex law.
The law requires each restaurant menu to state that "homemade dishes are made on site from raw produce"—even those that sell no such dishes. The law further requires that restaurants that serve only homemade food must display the words "fait maison" or display the fait maison logo—which appears to have been drawn to resemble a character from The Terrance and Phillip Show. Restaurants that sell foods that contain foods made from scratch and those that aren't must describe on the menu whether each dish is fait mason or not.
Inspectors will attempt to enforce the law beginning later this year.
One segment of French society's that's unhappy with the law is France's chefs, among whom it's "causing a revolt." In some cases at least, it appears some are unhappy because the law isn't strict enough—what with most frozen foods being exempt.
Other critics contend that France's mandatory 35-hour workweek and high labor costs—rather than the provenance of restaurant ingredients—are the reasons the country's restaurants are in decline.
Supporters of the fait maison law claim it will have several benefits. Among those benefits, supporters claim the law will create jobs by forcing restaurants to cook more of their food from scratch.
But I think it's more likely to have the opposite effect—at least in the short term. If consumers truly want homemade food, and discover that restaurants are light on such options, they're more likely to stay at home and cook themselves. Alternately, less discriminating consumers who learn that their food isn't made from scratch might just opt to stay home and heat their dinner in the microwave.
The real winner, in either case, would be France's supermarkets.
Other supporters paint the law as a Jose Bove-like stand against fast and "industrial" food.
It's "the government's way to protect diners from the many industrially prepared dishes served in most places and that are damaging the country's culinary reputation," writes Luxemborg-based Forbes contributor Cecelia Rodriquez.
That reputation is not what it appears. In fact, it looks like much of what you think you know about French food and food attitudes is either outdated or just plain wrong.
The best analysis of the state of French cuisine I've read comes from a surprising source: Epigram, the University of Bristol's student newspaper. (But then, I've always found Ratatouille to be the most profound of French movies.)
The student writer, Robin Cowie, wrote last year that a combination of bad French and EU policies, changing tastes, globalization, immigration, the ongoing economic crisis, a lack of innovation in French cuisine, and other factors are to blame for "the decline of France's food culture."
"It is this fear of multiculturalism and foreign cuisine that threatens French food culture more than anything else," writes Cowie.
If Cowie's right, the new fait maison law will do nothing to solve that problem.