Identikit: UK high streets make it hard for shoppers to tell the difference between Cambridge, Carlisle or Kirkcaldy these days but skip across the Channel and local parades still boast a vibrant mix of butchers, bakers and greengrocers.

France is home to more than 80,000 independent retailers, more than twice the number in the UK, including 40,000 boulangeries and more than 7,000 charcuteries. It is no accident that the flood of specialist shop closures seen in the UK has not been mirrored in France, and it is nothing to do with the French love of fine food.

Until recently, the expansionist ambitions of home-grown supermarket chains like Carrefour and Casino have been thwarted by the country's tough planning regime. But Simon Chinn, a French retail consultant at Verdict Research, says there could be trouble in store for the small shopkeepers of France.


Supermarkets are now cashing in on newly relaxed planning laws and there is a fast-growing demand for convenience stores, called "superettes", as French consumers eschew the weekly trek to their local hypermarket.

"The big thing in France is the cafe culture and if you walk down the high street there are cafes, bakeries and boucheries side by side," says Chinn. "Even before the credit crunch, hypermarkets were struggling due to a growing trend to shop locally or use internet delivery services."

Strolling through bustling organic food markets such as Raspail and Batignolles in Paris, it is easy to forget the muscle of France's grocery chains. Market leader Carrefour has a dominance not far behind that of Tesco in the UK with a 25 per cent share of the country's food retail market.

Two-thirds of the food shopping market is controlled by the big grocers and buying groups, with just 17 per cent in the hands of the small butchers and patisseries that charm visitors to France.

The supermarket groups' grip on the sector could tighten further, says Chinn, if a new breed of "superette cafe" can lure consumers away from their usual haunt. Casino, for example, has recently launched the Chez Jean chain, which combines a restaurant with a convenience store selling 600 products. The retailer opened six branches last year but plans to build a chain of at least 200.

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At the same time, Carrefour has been testing Carrefour City cafes, which also enable shoppers to surf the internet over a coffee before picking up their groceries.

Researchers at Euromonitor say cracking the convenience market is the "holy grail" for food retailers in France and sees big potential for the Chez Jean chain: "The chain could expand more aggressively, especially outside Paris in cities where Casino would not steal sales from its neighbourhood supermarkets."

Supermarket expansion like that seen in the UK was until recently stymied by France's Raffarin law which was introduced in 1996 and meant any new store bigger than 300 square metres required full planning consent.