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Will Brexit rob France of M&S? The clothes are deemed irretrievably English but Paris still loves the mini bites

M&S has been flirting with France for forty-five years. Credit: SIDALI-DJENIDI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

M&S has been flirting with France for forty-five years. Credit: SIDALI-DJENIDI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


January 8, 2021   5 mins

Be careful what you tweet. I provoked online consternation this week with a picture of empty shelves in a Marks and Spencer food shop in Paris:

Within a few minutes, my timeline was filled with wails of despair from British expats in Paris — and also from many Parisians. This is taking Brexit too far, they protested. Who cares if Paris is the world’s self-appointed culinary capital (when the restaurants are open at least)? How can we be expected to survive without daily supplies of bacon, lettuce and tomato or egg mayonnaise sandwiches? Or crumpets? Or scones? Or chicken tikka massala? Or Wiltshire sausages? Or strawberry trifle?

Four days later, food shipments to the Marks and Spencer outlets in Paris — and Lille and Dublin and Prague – have still not been fully restored. The M&S franchised food store at Porte Maillot in western Paris has been reduced to filling its refrigerated cabinets with cut-price bunches of kale. Shades of the Soviet Union circa 1974. Other stores have closed temporarily.

The Spectator and the Daily Express have tee-heed about Brexit-related “food shortages in France”. Here is proof, they suggest mischieviously, that Brexit is a problem for the French and for the rest of the EU, not for the UK.

Well, not really. France, as far as I can establish, is not facing starvation. There is plenty of camembert and paté de foie and boeuf bourguignon to go around. Only a tiny percentage of French people, and a few thousand British migrants, are concerned by the prospect of a collapse in the easy availability of British food delicacies in a few French cities.

The problems for M&S are in fact a microcosm of wider problems for UK PLC as it struggles to adjust to a new, less open relationship with its biggest, and nearest, trading partner.

M&S has 21 small, franchised food outlets in France, including 19 in the Paris area. Until the New Year truck-loads of goodies from the company’s main depot in Northampton could roll into France each day as easily as they could roll into Lancashire or Cornwall. No longer. Since January 1st, daily supplies from Britain have been halted, while the company gets its head around the 1,200-page, post-Brexit trade deal.

Food exports are still allowed tariff-free into the EU under the last-minute deal struck by Britain and Brussels. But they now have to meet EU food standards. And prove it. They must pay tariffs if they contain ingredients imported from non-EU countries. Each product in each consignment must travel with the relevant documents. These are not new rules to punish Britain. They are the standard rules for access to the European single market that Britain helped to build in the late 1980s and has decided to abandon.

Should M&S not have prepared for this event many months ago? Possibly. In November the company announced that it had “invested in technology to track goods and meet new customs and certification requirements that will come into effect in January”. But the precise terms on which Britain would leave the European single market were unclear until details of the deal were published on 26 December — five days before the change.

The company now says that it is “transitioning to the new processes”:

“It is taking a little longer for some of our products to reach stores, but we are working with our partners, suppliers and relevant Government agencies and local authorities to quickly improve this.”

M&S tell me that they hope, eventually, to restore the full range of supplies to their franchised stores in France and other EU countries. French officials suggest that this process may not be so easy. Lagardùre, parent company of the firm that franchises M&S food in France, says that the disruption could continue until the end of January. There is a possibility that some of the sandwiches beloved of French office workers (cheese and ploughman’s pickle, prawn and avocado) may permanently fall foul of EU rules on the importation of fresh produce. So might some British processed meats such as sausages.

Do not the French have sausages, you ask? An expat (me) writes: “Yes. Some are quite good. But they’re not the same as British bangers.”

There is already a long and complex history between M&S and France — an unlikely love affair, punctuated by frequent misunderstandings. The retailer opened its first Paris store in 1975. For a while M&S — there were 18 large stores across France at one stage — became a successful ambassador for the British way of life and underwear. Princess Grace of Monaco shopped at the flagship Boulevard Haussmann store, opposite Galerie Lafayette. She was reported as saying that she went there to buy stock for her charity jumble sales. Not everyone believed her.

When that first store opened in Paris, M&S saw no reason to supply French translations for its produce. The staff that worked there advised London HQ that Parisians were buying packets of dried flowers and using them as herbal teas, with disappointing results. Translations were provided. Pots of M&S branded marmalade arrived with labels which declared that they were sans prĂ©servatifs, which means in French “without condoms”.*

More recently, there has been another cross-Channel linguistic faux-pas which has not yet been corrected. M&S “mini-bites” — small chocolate rolls or flap-jacks — are rightly popular in France, as they are in Britain. The labels never fail to produce hilarity among young French people. “Une bite” in French is slang for a penis. So a “mini-bite” is


M&S profits in France nose-dived in the late 1990s, partly because the pound sterling was very high against the franc, partly because the store faced competition from other brands like Gap. British fashion sense — all the rage for a while — failed to keep up with French expectations. As Les Echos, the French equivalent of the Financial Times put it in 2001: “Design and buying was concentrated in London 
 In the last few years English green and mauve has no longer excited  people.” Françoise, a 35-year-old Parisienne told the newspaper: “Their women’s clothes are comfortable but not very elegant. They are 
 irretrievably English.”

M&S closed its French stores abruptly in 2001, firing its staff by e-mail, causing a cross-Channel diplomatic incident. Soon afterwards, a friend overheard the following conversation between two mothers in a Parisian playground:

Maman NumĂ©ro Un: “Isn’t it terrible about Marks & Spencer? Last Christmas, I bought these bizarre things there… You pull them at either end, they explode and everyone has a present to put by their plate.”

Maman NumĂ©ro Deux (amazed): “Only the English could think of something like that.”

Ten years later M&S opened a new store mostly for men’s and women’s clothes on the Champs ElysĂ©es, ignoring advice from experts (including myself) that the 21st century French adored M&S food but not M&S clothes.

The clothes departments were frequently empty. A small food section at the back was besieged by office-workers and ransacked daily. Within five years, the shop closed.

The newspaper, Le Parisien, reported that the Champs ElysĂ©es store (opposite the flagship store of the luxury brand LVMH) had been visited mostly for its haricots Ă  la sauce tomate (baked beans), or its viande aux Ɠufs (scotch eggs) which “are fine representatives of gastronomy across the Channel.” Lucie, 22, told the newsaper: “I come often but only for the food 
 They have wonderful stuff to serve with aperitifs or brunch, crackers and little sausages.”

Soon afterwards M&S, finally seeing the light. sponsored a series of small, franchised food stores in railway stations, airports and shopping centres. They have been very successful.

The third French coming of M&S is now threatened. Brexit was supposed to bring the apotheosis of a new Global Britain. Maybe, one day, it will. But one of its first achievements may be the eviction of the British Sausage from France. Maybe, even the mini-bite.

Quel dommage.

 

* My source for both these stories was one of the original store managers, interviewed for The Independent in 2001.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Just another anti-Brexit rant. What the writer should be ranting about is the environmental and logistical absurdity of making sandwiches in England and shipping them in a fuel-guzzling truck to another country. What a despicable use of resources and no wonder these sandwiches are so overpriced.

No doubt the sort of people who shop at M&S for food consider themselves to be ‘good’ people who care about the environment. As is so often the case with these people, they are wrong.

J J
J J
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

So now the government should ban all forms of food exported from the UK on the basis its bad for the environment? Or is your problem only with prepared food?

Also a reminder that London is closer to Paris than some parts of the North of the UK. Should we also ban the transport of Sandwiches in the UK that are over 200 miles?

This Brexit stuff is getting out of hand.

Teo
Teo
3 years ago
Reply to  J J

London is closer to Paris than some parts of the North of the UK.

The “levelling up” compass appears to be pointing the wrong way.

J J
J J
3 years ago
Reply to  Teo

To be fair, I think that M&S branch was in Paris long before Boris Johnson came to town.

Although it’s not widely known that M&S is a Northern company, or at least it’s first branch was in the North.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  J J

Leeds 1884, Pity about Demise of Retail ,Debenhams, Maplin electronics, Carphone Warehouse,Edinburgh woollen mills,Peacocks etc ..Not all of US want to buy everything online!

J J
J J
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

Those that adapt survive, those that do not …

That is the basis of life and has nothing to do with Boris Johnson or the ‘Great Reset’

The high street was collapsing long before COVID. We can mitigate the damage, which is exactly what the government has done. 400 billion dollars at the last count.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  J J

Where did he say anything about government banning? Think for a second, would a sandwich made so far away be fresh when you got it? Does it make environmental sense to ship a sandwich that isn’t going to be fresh so far away? Seems like people want fresher, cheaper food, not staler, more expensive food. Even if it’s British.

J J
J J
3 years ago

You can food from the South of England to Paris in hours. It will still be fresh. The French do not know how to make Sandwiches. Particularly not Cheese and Pickle or Coronation Chicken.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  J J

Why would they? Those are British food tastes, not French tastes. In any case, it seems like British people living in France could still make a cheese and pickle sandwich. It isn’t rocket science. They do have cheese and pickles.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It does seem odd and environmentally foolish to ship sandwiches such a distance. I wouldn’t buy a sandwich made in another country as it wouldn’t be fresh. Aldi seems to have the hang of this as it does not sell prepared food in the US and its produce and dairy are locally sourced in the US. Keeps the prices low and it’s much fresher.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

UK Imports 40% of its Foodstuffs &ReExports 20% &rising Without this uK Manufacturing at 11% GDP is struggling..Pity lib-Lab-Cons-Snp-Green Globalists Cannot see need to Manufacture &lessen imports on China?

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
3 years ago

I’ve lived in France for 14 years, of which six were in Paris, the rest in Burgundy. Despite the adulation of French gastronomy both in the UK and France it should be noted that most French people pass from cradle to grave without ever tasting real, ‘unmucked about with’ cream. My (French) wife was shocked when I showed her some six or seven variations, all new to her, not one of them even slightly cheesified, when we once visited M&S in the UK.

La creme fraiche, so called, is anything but. You wouldn’t put in your coffee or tea, for example. Brown sugar, in all its variations is almost unknown.

The French are clueless about bacon; a wave in the direction of a frying pan or grill is all you get. I gave some friends a taste of crispy bacon some years ago and they didn’t know what it was but they loved it, not believing that it was the same stuff they simply warm for thirty seconds before it goes into a quiche. BLT’s are virtually unknown, and hardly anyone here knows how to make a half decent sandwich though it has to be said that many baguettes are very good.

Other than next to la Gare du Nord in Paris, nobody in their right mind would visit an Indian restaurant in France (I once had a spiceless curry, to my horror), which is another reason why the M&S curries are so badly needed here.

As an aside, I’d like to add that while the cafe culture is attractive, the coffee, for the most part, is not. I’ve had far better cappuccinos in Africa and Bangladesh than I can get in almost every French cafe. Even Starbucks only uses UHT milk! Don’t ask for a flat white, they’ll look at you as if you were mad. Thank heaven for Costa!

M&S food shops are almost always full, mostly by French customers of discerning taste, so I can only pray that they cut the paperwork and bring M&S back here where it is so very badly needed!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I too have lived in France, and still visit regularly. You make many good points. However, just look at the weekly or monthly lunch menus posted outside French junior schools and weep when you compare them to British schools.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

In my experience, sandwiches with more than one thing in between the bread slices are the sole domain of America and Vietnam.

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

I can’t say that’s been my experience though it does seem that in France the bulk of sandwiches for sale have cheese in addition to some other filling.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Lucky you dont live in Germany ”Percy Pigs” According to pro-EU british media are in danger! All because Anti-Common market people,like myself..however as its EU import Tax fix that!

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

If the extent of the problem is proving what the ingredients are of a sandwich then what is the problem.

Just for comparison when we joined the EEC the imposition of VAT caused so many problem that a court case started by M&S over the definition of a tea cake ran from 1973 to 2008. So these are hiccup’s not problems!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Every time I wonder into an M&S food store or section I point at everything and say ‘How much? How much?” How would one say that in French? Anyway, there are obviously a lot of French people with more money than sense.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“How much?” is “Combien?”. You must know that already Fraser, if you have lived in France.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

Yes, I know that ‘combien’ means how much, but I was thinking that there might be a more colloquial French way of expressing surprise and despair while saying the same thing.

RĂłnĂĄn Davison-Kernan
RĂłnĂĄn Davison-Kernan
3 years ago

MEanwhile we now have very real shortages of food in supermarkets in Northern Ireland.

A.N. Other
A.N. Other
3 years ago

Yes, It’s almost like the Great Potato Famine. There’s no food to be had at all! What will we do? Don’t let us die this time! Can Lord Adonis and Gina send us food parcels until they get us back in? Never mind the Peoples Vote send us The People’s Potato!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago

Plus ca change …. je pense ðƾℱ‚

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

I’m still working on my comprehension of the UK being a distribution hub for the EU as stated in the FT.

I also like the comments about French customs slowing things down. I seem to have heard that before…..

yvesmariestranger
yvesmariestranger
3 years ago

The M&S gÚne,
Like their skinny jeans,
Caused some gÃÂȘne.
(Irrietrievably British?)

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago

Does M+S count as a ‘big business’ these days? Certainly it used to – I seem to remember they got to £1 billion profits before Tesco (OK, may have been sales). No doubt they were part of the business lobby saying how bad Brexit would be for Britain.

But as the article shows they were never really committed to trading in Europe. I guess most EU capitals have (or have had) an M+S, but you don’t see them in other major cities, food or clothing stores.

With the exception of Tesco, our other larger retailers never bothered to step foot on the continent. And Tesco never tried in the western countries, only the former eastern bloc. But you’ll see French and German retailers in Spain, Italy, and many other parts. Lidl and Aldi have around 20% supermarket share, as well as the likes of Zara in clothing.

If the shopkeepers of the nation never made a serious effort to get European consumers, it’s perhaps not surprising that the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ made no effort to become European!

matthewspring
matthewspring
3 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

Tesco has over 150 stores in the Rep. of Ireland and contols somethng like a quarter of the grocery market. Not bad!

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  matthewspring

Yes but at the same time they have withdrawn from all other major global markets including China, Thaland, US.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

The US grocery market is incredibly competitive. If you’re competing on price, you can’t beat Wal-Mart. And Fresh & Easy, Tesco’s oddly named entry couldn’t compete on price. British foodstuffs are very easy to find in the US, including at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix, all the big chains. Then there’s the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods that carry lots of British foods.

Thai grocery stores haven’t competed in the US either, nor have Chinese or French or Italian, Polish, etc. Aldi has found a very small niche (upscale neighborhoods and they carry locally sourced foods with a little German cookie and cake aisle) that works perfectly for them but they are the exception, not the rule.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

Indeed, what amazed me was that after 45 years of EU membership our “great British businesses” had almost no business on the continent. For example, the big insurance companies had no or terribly performing European businesses. Ditto the banks.
British retailers around the globe are a disaster, I witnessed the coming and going of M&S, Next, B&Q, New Look, Tesco, et al in China and all were a disaster. M&S was a particular dud as even the food section was highly limited to only ambient and dry foods, nobody could understand what the hell the clothes section was supposed to be.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

British banks never needed to be in the EU as virtually all of their profitable activity could be managed through the City of London. Ditto insurance… you clearly have never heard of Solvency Two. The finance industry is just fine thank you very much. All that moved ‘back’ is the Euro clearing stuff which is big but not that big as to permanently damage the City. As one of the other posters mentioned, this is but a hiccup whilst things are worked out.

As for Tesco, where I live in the Far East, Tesco is the biggest supermarket chain used by everyone. It is the discount supermarket so attracts hoards and I do mean hordes of shoppers.

M&S out here though is very limited in its food choices but then again few people out here eat western food anyway. I get my extra strong tea bags there. I miss them.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

When I visited Communist Yougoslavia just before easter 1982 in dubrovnik the best Store Was M&S!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

On the rare occasions that I walk through an M&S clothes section, the drab uniformity of the products resembles that of Mao’s China. As such, I’m surprised they failed in China.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

I don’t think of M&S as comparable to Zara, isn’t it a department store? Perhaps there are German department stores in Spain and Italy but I can’t think of any.

And it’s not a discount store like Zara and Aldi and Lidl. All 3 are in the US. Notably the grocers all use US suppliers for produce and dairy, not German ones. And they are dirt cheap, although their main competition is Wal-Mart. Shoppers are bewildered by the Aldi cart procedure.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
3 years ago

Le peuple n’a pas de British bangers.
Qu’ils mangent des andouillettes!

J J
J J
3 years ago

Just out of curiosity, do we now treat the EU as a ‘third country’? That is, make them complete forms to confirm they meet UK standards? Not suggesting we should, just curious.

J J
J J
3 years ago

No Sandwich is better than a Bad Sandwich.

What about their over ready meals?

Just out of curiosity, do we now treat the EU as a ‘third country’? That is, make them complete forms to confirm they meet UK standards? Not suggesting we should, just curious.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

This sign really should just be simplified to read…….

Look what you rubes have done.

one a zed
one a zed
3 years ago

I see that M&S are now realizing that HMG’S cheap food policy isn’t popular with the EU. It was fine when chinese chicken breasts were imported and duty paid in Southampton, but now that Asian chicken, duck, pork & prawns don’t qualify for a quick transport over the channel, sourcing week become important. GB origin food qualifies – maybe that the brexit dividend!

M Blanc
M Blanc
3 years ago

Typical globalist whining.