How Provincials Took Over the Paris Café Scene

A very Happy New Year, Bonne Année à tous et à toutes. Welcome to the first blog post of the year. I can’t believe that we are almost in mid-January already. Life resumes its normal course in the new year. The Christmas decs are back in their box, many restaurants are shut for the month, and we are trying to have an abstemious, if not completely dry, January. After a little break, Life on La Lune is back on the case, nosing out stories and aspects of French life for your delectation.

I recently read an article in a French mag about les bougnats, immigrants to Paris from the Auvergne and Northern Aveyron. I already knew a little about them, but this prompted me to find out more, since they dominated the Paris café trade during the 20th century.

Many of them became café owners by a circuitous route. The celebrated Brasserie Lipp and le Café Flore were taken over in the 1930s and run by the bougnats Marcelin Cazes, a former cowherd from Laguiole, Aveyron, and Paul Boubal, from Sainte-Eulalie d’Olt, also in Aveyron.

The town of Aubrac during transhumance festivities, not far from Laguiole, where Marcelin Cazes was a cowherd.

Why did they end up in Paris, and how did they get their nickname?

Rural exodus

People have left their native lands and regions for centuries, in search of a better life. Les bougnats were no exception.

The industrial revolution and the spread of the railways started an exodus from rural France in the 19th century. Trains brought the new fertilisers, enabling farmers who lived near the railway to improve their soil and specialise in crops such as wheat.

The mountainous uplands of les Monts du Cantal and the Aubrac still remained inaccessible. Their acid soils could support only subsistence farming, which broke down in the face of industrial farming methods. Farming in these remote areas became a thankless task. In addition, the old cottage industries, such as weaving, became less sustainable, since the trains brought cheaper, factory-produced textiles.

Les Monts du Cantal, beautiful but remote

Farmers from these areas began to abandon the land and move to the towns, particularly Paris, in search of work. Some of them worked in Paris in the winter and went back to work in their own areas in the summer, making cheese, for example. By 1879, there were around 700 Auvergnats/Aveyronnais in Paris, who settled mostly in the 11th arrondissement, around la Bastille. By the end of the century, the stream had become a flood.

From coal to cafés

The rural immigrants often worked in hard manual jobs: boilermakers, metal scrap merchants, parquet planers, knife grinders and water carriers for the public baths, the latter from the late 17th century. As the Parisian water supply network developed, the need for water carriers declined. The industrial revolution gathered pace, and the railways brought coal and other materials from the provinces. The bougnats changed métier accordingly.

Increasingly, they turned to wood and coal delivery, because of their links with the mining towns of the Auvergne and northern Aveyron. This is when they acquired the nickname, bougnats, a mixture of ‘charbonnier’ and ‘auvergnat’.

bougnat in the 1930s, from an original postcard. Unknown 1930s, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dernier_bougnat_de_Paris.jpg

At the same time, many of them opened cafés. The odd-sounding combination of coal merchant and bistro owner became common in Paris. The husband delivered the coal, while the wife served drinks and sometimes meals, under the sign Vins et Charbon (wine and coal).

The bougnats came to dominate ‘la limonade’ (nickname for the café trade). In fact, it’s reckoned that by the 1980s more than 80% of cafés-tabac in the Ile de France were in the hands of bougnats.

The nickname bougnat was used pejoratively to begin with. Les bougnats were scorned because they spoke their own language and were seen as country bumpkins from the ‘foreign’ lands of South-Central France. Equally, they were accused of sharp practice by watering down or adulterating the wine. And the historian and novelist Daniel Crozes has shown that they weren’t always above ripping each other off if it suited them, for example renting sub-standard accommodation for inflated rents to newcomers from their own region.

Close-knit community

Despite this, the bougnats were a close-knit, hard-working community. Many of them made their fortune in Paris, often sending money to relatives back home. They were also firmly attached to their region of origin and kept alive their traditions and folklore through fêtes and dances, wearing their paysan dress of smocks, broad-brimmed hats and clogs. These friendly societies still exist.

Traditional paysan dress. The extravagant floral corsages have their own history, but were not everyday wear!
Two rivals in love insult each other. Traditional Cantalien dance, which we saw in Cantal a few years ago.

Today, the link between bougnats and cafés is less extensive, since their descendants have chosen other professions. However, there are around 500,000 descendants of bougnats living in Ile de France.  

Final bougnat fact: Marcelin Cazes founded a literary prize in 1935, le Prix Cazes. The original intention was for it to launch the career of an author of a novel, essay, biography or memoir who had not previously won a prize. The prize is still awarded every year at the Brasserie Lipp.

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4 comments

  1. Have you ever noticed that the epicenter of the creperies in Paris is close to Montparnasse railway station? That is where the Bretons arrived in Paris and they tended to settle in that area. There was a similar pattern around Gare de l”Est for those coming from Alsace and Lorraine. As for the Auvergnats, they were noted stone masons as well. Typically it was from areas close to Paris that provided it with in-migrants; Auvergne was a bit of an exception – unusually big as a source region for migrants to Paris.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t say I’m familiar enough with Montparnasse to have noticed the creperies, but I’m sure you’re correct. Immigrants from the provinces tended to settle, at least at first, in the area of the station they arrived at. Creusois (Limousin) stone masons are well known, but I’m not sure about Auvergnat stone masons in particular. However, I’ll reply at greater length to your email. Thanks for sending the article.

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