The French consume a staggering six billion baguettes each year - 320 per second - and close to half are made by artisan bakers. But a growing shortage of staff is threatening the future of the industry. Apprentices of immigrant background are increasingly stepping in, and up.
The recent case of Stéphane Ravacley, a French baker who went on hunger strike to stop his Guinean apprentice from being deported, has drawn attention to staff shortages in France’s bakery industry.
“We lose 70% of qualified apprentices either because they lose interest or because their employers don’t look after them,” Ravacley said when he launched his hunger strike. “So why don’t we accept these youngsters who’re suffering in their countries and want to work here? They’re not taking the place of French people.”
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Ravaclay’s dramatic act paid off and Laye Fodé Traoré, who arrived in France as an unaccompanied minor, obtained the right to stay here.
Last Tuesday he put his apron back on and returned to La Huche à pain bakery in Besançon, eastern France.
“In the beginning it wasn’t easy getting up in the middle of the night but I ended up loving this job,” 18-year old Traoré told RFI’s Sylvie Koffi. “I want to become an honourable person, I’ve had that in my head since I was a child. So I have to work hard.”
Taking time to train
There are a growing number of apprentices like Laye in France’s 30,000 or so bakeries. Most are in big cities like Paris.
“Some of my fellow bakers say ‘oh I don’t want any more apprentices because they’re trouble,’ says Nicolas Roquais, a pastry chef who now runs the Boulangerie Magali in Paris.
“But if we don’t take the time to help them, then we mustn’t complain that we can’t find the staff.”
Roquais has trained eight apprentices since taking over the bakery with his wife and brother two years ago.
He admits it doesn’t always work out. “Sometimes it’s the apprentice’s fault. I had to let one youngster go, it was clear his mother thought there was work in the bakery business, but his heart wasn’t in it.”
But two of his apprentices are now full-time members of staff: Momo, a strapping 22-year old from Mali and the slighter, but equally dedicated, Nassir from Afghanistan. Both arrived in France as unaccompanied minors.
They’ve thrived in the bakery’s collegial atmosphere.
“We say to the apprentices: ‘in our bakery there’s no boss, no apprentice, no shop assistant, we’re all the same’", Roquais explains. "We respect each another, the product and the client. If there are problems, we talk them through.”
When Momo was struggling to get his diploma, head baker Renaud stepped in.
“Momo calls me ‘the big boss’,” Renaud jokes, “there’s a lot of technical vocabulary around the bakery business, so I helped him with the written and technical part of his diploma.”
Not all employers are prepared to put that level of effort into bringing on their apprentices. Which partly explains the high drop-out rate.
Another reason is the system itself. Apprentices divide their time between bakery and school and for the first year they’re cheap: the monthly 380 euro salary is paid by the state, not their employer.
“A lot of employers think only about the subsidies they’ll get when hiring an apprentice,” says Roquais. “They say ‘hey we’ve got an extra pair of hands for free’! But even if they’re in school one week out of two, you mustn’t take them on because they’re cheap.”
Roquais believes apprentices are a longer term investment to help ensure the future of the artisan bakery industry.
“These people are our future top pastry chefs and bakers, business owners, instructors. So we have to do the training. If you train someone just to get the subsidy you’re making a mistake.”
A ticket to travel
Despite increasing mechanisation in the bakery trade, the job remains physically demanding: hours can be long and unsociable, and a newly-qualified apprentice is paid the minimum wage of 1,554 euros gross per month. That doesn’t go far in a city like Paris.
But as Roquais tells his apprentices, they have prospects.
“I always tell them when they start out: ‘you have a great job, if you work hard, use your head and your hands, you can travel anywhere. French bakers and pastry chefs are in demand all over the world.”
Momo and Nassir are both ambitious and aim to be their own boss one day.
“My dream is to have my own company,” says Momo, his head and hands focused on laying out trays of viennoise bread rolls. "To succeed, just like everyone else.”
This story first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast #47