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. Lagardère, 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 préservatifs, 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 Numéro 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 Numéro 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 Elysées, 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 Elysées store (opposite the flagship store of the luxury brand LVMH) had been visited mostly for its haricots à la sauce tomate (baked beans), or its viande aux œufs (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.