Once upon a time, you had to eat your lunch early in Paris or not at all.
By 12.30pm, the tables in all the decent, affordable restaurants were taken. If you were late, you had the choice between the doubtful, unswept brasserie on the corner, a McDonald's or something even more unFrench, a sandwich at your desk.
All over Paris - all over France - restaurant tables are standing empty.
The takings of French restaurants and cafes have plunged by 20 per cent this year. Nearly 3,000 restaurants and cafes have gone bust in the first half of 2008 - a 30 per cent increase on the same period last year.
Alarm bells are ringing in the French restaurant industry, but also in the French government. If the French have stopped indulging in their favourite sport - eating out - there must be something profoundly disturbed in the state of France.
Bernard Picolet, 59, is the patron of an excellent corner restaurant, Les Amis du Beaujolais, a couple of hundred yards from the Champs Elysees in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.
"I have been here for more than 20 years, and my father and uncle before me. I have never known custom to be so poor," he said.
"People will tell you that it's because of the economic crisis or it's because of the smoking ban [which came into effect in cafes and restaurants in February] or because there are no Americans around. Yes, of course, it is partly the fault of those things but it is also something much worse than that and, I fear, it's not going to get better. The French, these days, are no longer eating like the French. They are eating like the English.
"Younger French people today don't understand or care about food. They are happy to gobble a sandwich or chips, rather than go to a restaurant. They will spend a lot of money going to a nightclub but not to eat a good meal. They have the most sophisticated kinds of mobile telephone but they have no idea what a courgette is. They know all about the internet but they don't know where to start to eat a fish."
M. Picolet, whose restaurant is recommended by most Paris food guides, says that he has lost one in five of his customers since the start of the year. At one time, you had to wait for a table to eat at Les Amis on the Rue du Berri. Now, every lunchtime, there are swathes of empty white tablecloths.
"If it weren't for my faithful, regular customers, I would be dead," M. Picolet said.
"And do you know who my most faithful customers are? The English. There are many English people who work around here and they still like to eat a good lunch. The French? The younger French, at any rate. Pah!"
According to a report yesterday by the French financial insurance company Euler Hermes SFAC, no fewer than 1,782 "traditional" French restaurants went bankrupt in the first six months of this year - a 25 per cent increase on 2007.
The victims are mostly low or middle-range neighbourhood restaurants, rather than the gastronomically ambitious and high-priced.
The destruction among cafes - a 56 per cent increase in bankruptcies - was even worse, largely because of the smoking ban. Even fast-food restaurants (bankruptcies up 19 per cent) are feeling the pinch.
Marie-Christine Schmitt, who helped to prepare the report for Euler Hermes, said: "This is only the outright bankruptcies. Many other restaurateurs, or cafe owners, are retiring early or selling up.
"You have a number of factors piled up on top of one another. There has been a collapse in French disposable income, which means that spending on all services and luxuries has fallen. On top of that, you have the smoking ban in public places. On top of that you have the explosion in the costs of foodstuffs, which means that restaurants have been forced to increase prices, and lose customers, or lose money."
Mme Schmitt agrees with M. Picolet, however, that the Great French Restaurant Crisis of 2008 is not just a passing phenomenon.
"There has been a change in French behaviour patterns, that is clear," she said.
"There has been a gradual movement away from the French tradition of restaurant-eating towards buying sandwiches or bringing them from home. Even at the seaside this summer, restaurants have been complaining that the tourists - French and foreign - have been eating a sandwich or picnic on the beach rather than sitting down for a proper meal."
Another phenomenon was also identified yesterday by Francois Simon, the much-feared restaurant critic of the French newspaper Le Figaro.
Simon, who broke the story of the restaurant crisis, said there was also a typically French war of nerves going on between suffering restaurants and their more "careful" customers.
Those people who do still frequent restaurants, he said, are being more restrained about what they order. Some are finding themselves harassed - even ejected - by angry waiters or restaurateurs.
At the Aux Lyonnais restaurant in Paris, owned by the celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, diners who decline to order an aperitif are told that their meals "will take a long time to prepare".
"This is a classic ploy," Simon said.
At the Quincy restaurant, near the Gare de Lyon - usually known for its politeness, according to Simon - two couples were recently shown the door after they declined to order a starter. When they protested, the owner said: "How do you expect me to survive?"
Daniele Deleval is vice-president of the restaurateurs' trade body, L'Union des metiers et des industries de l'hotellerie.
"We are very worried," she said yesterday.
"Turnover this year has fallen by 20 per cent and we see no signs of things getting better ... French people are eating at home more or going to the bakery or sandwich shop or one of the big fast-food chains. The problems are greatest for restaurants offering menus at between A16 and A30."
Mme Deleval begged the French government to deliver on its promise to persuade the EU to allow a cut in VAT on restaurant meals in France.
A cut from 19.6 per cent to 5.5 per cent was pledged by President Jacques Chirac six years ago. President Nicolas Sarkozy has revived the idea but it remains blocked in Brussels, partly through opposition from Berlin, which fears an avalanche of similar demands.
French bloggers, reacting to news of the restaurant crisis, have accused restaurateurs of "spitting in their own soup" by taking advantage of another European fact of life - the euro.
French restaurant prices had risen out of proportion to inflation, they complain, because owners have exploited the switch from francs to euros.
"With high prices, rude waiters and no cigarettes allowed ... people prefer to invite a few friends to eat and drink at home. It's cheaper and more fun," one contributor wrote.
M. Picolet is convinced that deeper forces are at work.
"It starts in the home," he said.
"French people are going American, eating snacks in front of the TV. How can you expect them to appreciate a good meal? My uncle and father ran this restaurant before me and my son is working with me now, but he and his wife, seeing how things are going, want to do something else. When I retire, this place will probably close too.
"One day, we will look around and ask what happened to all our restaurants but by then it will be too late."