Even President Macron has admitted he enjoys a glass of wine with lunch and dinner. Photo: AFP
Should wine be given special treatment over other alcohols when it comes to health? France's outspoken health minister said 'no', but then came the backlash.
Agnès Buzyn sparked anger and even shock on national television recently when she accused France's wine industry of practising “double standards” when it comes to selling wine as a soft alcohol.
"The wine industry today claims wine is different from other types of alcohol,” she told France 2.
“In terms of public health, it is exactly the same thing to drink wine, beer, vodka, whiskey, there is zero difference.
"French people have been told wine is the safe option, that it will bring benefits that other spirits won’t. That's wrong. Scientifically, wine is alcohol like any other."
France’s Minister of Solidarity and Health went on to describe an “ambivalent” French society being subjected to “double discourse” by the industry.
According to Buzyn, the notion of "consumption in moderation" has had its day.
"’In moderation’ shouldn’t be used anymore, the real message we should be sending out today is ‘alcohol is bad for your health’".
Indeed even her boss, the President Emmanuel Macron came out against his minister's notion that when it comes to health wine was just an alcohol like any other.
In dismissing the idea that he would toughen the existing laws surrounding advertising and alcohol, called the "Loi Evin", Macron said he had wine every lunch and dinner time.
"There is a blight to public health when young people get drunk at an accelerated speed with alcohol or beer, but it is not the case with wine," said Macron who said he wouldn't be "annoying the French" with any changes to the law.
There have also been other voices within the French government that contradict Buzyn’s statements.
"Obviously there is alcohol in the wine, but it is an alcohol that is not strong and that is part of our tradition, our culture, our national identity," secretary to the prime minister Christophe Castaner told TV channel BFMTV on Thursday.
"Wine is not our enemy".
His superior Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on the other hand has taken a more moderate approach to the situation.
“Do you honestly think this government will take measures against winemakers and wine culture?", he asked the National Assembly.
"We’ll respect wine culture and French agriculture, but we can’t pretend there isn’t a public health problem at stake."
And unsurprisingly, her comments were greeted with dismay by those in the wine world.
Joël Forgeau, President of wine lobby Vin et Société, told French news magazine L’Express he was “stunned” by the Minister’s comments.
"These intolerable comments are experienced as a real provocation by winegrowers.
“They feel stigmatized as they have been engaged in promoting responsible consumption for several years now," he added.
In an article published by right-leaning daily Le Figaro, members of France’s Academy of Wine denounced the "full-on attack" by Buzyn, calling it an unfair witch-hunt.
"Our minister tells us that defending wine culture is an alibi that allows wine growers to sell more and poison consumers," Gironde senator Nathalie Delattre said, going on to accuse Agnès Buzyn of wanting to make France the "country of prohibition".
For years the question about the impact of drinking wine on health has been pushed to the background. For many years the idea that a glass or two of red a day was good for your health appeared to be set in stone in France.
Indeed in the 1970s the press dubbed it the “French paradox”, when scientists Serge Renaud and Michel de Lorgil found a relatively low risk of heart disease in red-wine drinkers, despite a diet rich in saturated fat.
But Buzyn is not the first to speak up.
In June 2016 France's national auditors the Cour des Comptes wrote a stinging report in which they said the government was complicit with the 49,000 alcohol related deaths each year in the country.
In a wine market worth €28.3 billion ($32 billion) in 2015, France remains by far the largest exporter in terms of market share value, with 29 percent, equivalent to €8.2 billion.
Despite this, the United States devotes 10 times more resources to investigating the effects of alcohol than France.
But any attempt to tip the balance away from wine towards health has been met with ferce resistance in the past.
A French government plan to include reinforced health warnings for wine on bottles was proposed in 2014, but was met with outcry from the the country's wine industry chiefs.
While Macron is clearly not ready to back his health minister, perhaps France's changing drinking culture means there might not be any need.
While wine is still soaked into French culture, times have changed dramatically.
On average the French drink around 44 litres of wine each per year, a steep drop on the 160 litres downed annually by the average adult in 1965.
A survey in 2016 revealed that only 16 percent of French people consider themselves regular drinkers of wine. Back in 1980 that figure was 51 percent.
And it seems France's younger generations are less attached to the country's national drink with only five percent of 15 to 34 year-olds saying they drink wine regularly. For the over 65s it was 38 percent.