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9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France

It's definitely part of France, but its complicated and frequently bloody history gives Alsace a very different character to the rest of the country, as journalist and former Strasbourg resident Martin Greenacre explains.

9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France
Photo: Patrick Herzog/AFP

“It must be cold?” “Is there anything to do there?” “Isn’t that in Germany?” Mention Alsace to anybody from another part of France, and you will frequently provoke a mixture of fear and intrigue. The historical region was part of Germany from 1871 until the end of the First World War in 1918, and as a result of that history, has taken elements from both French and German culture.

It may have officially become part of the Grand Est region in 2016, along with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne, but things are still done differently in Alsace.

If you are considering visiting or moving to eastern France, here is what you should expect.

1 The pastries

Pain au chocolat, chocolatine, or in the case of eastern France, petit pain au chocolat… Whatever you choose to call it, this pastry is a staple of diets all across France. But if you pop to the bakery for some breakfast during a trip to Strasbourg, you may notice one difference. As if this treat wasn’t indulgent enough already, Alsatian bakers like to add a layer of icing sugar on top of their petits pains au chocolat.

READ ALSO Pain au chocolat v chocolatine

Magali Poulaillon, who runs the Poulaillon chain of bakeries, gave one possible explanation when speaking to Pokaa: “Since Alsace is close to Germany, bakers have been able to take inspiration from the other side of the Rhine, because the Germans use a lot of icing on their pastries.”

Whatever the origins, this is one innovation we can get behind.

2 Pretzels

This is another snack which is definitely inspired by France’s neighbours to the east. You can find the hard, mini pretzels (bretzels in French) in supermarkets all across France. However, the large, soft pretzels common in Germany and the United States can be difficult to come by.

Except, that is, in Alsace, where you can walk into any bakery and order a bretzel. In fact, the heart-shaped pretzel is so popular it inspired the official logo used for Alsatian products.

You can even visit the pretzel museum in the village of Gundershoffen, north of Strasbourg, if that’s your kind of thing.

The pretzel-style logo of the of the Collectivite Europeenne d’Alsace (European Community of Alsace) in Colmar. Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

3 The language

The region’s strong local identity and German influences are never more evident than in the Alsatian dialect.

A 2012 study found that 600,000 people were able to speak Alsatian, most of whom were over the age of 60. While it is becoming increasingly rare among younger generations, you may still hear peaking speaking the local dialect in restaurants, or at football matches at the Stade de La Meinau.

You will also have to grapple with the language barrier when trying to pronounce the names of streets and villages.

The great thing about place names in Alsace is that even native French speakers who are not from the region struggle with them, so you’re less likely to feel like a foreigner.

Street signs can seem intimidating at first, but many place names follow the same set of rules. For example the ‘h’ is not pronounced when it follows an ‘s’, so the final syllable in Lingolsheim is similar to the first syllable in the English name Simon. With a bit of practice, you’ll be giving people directions to Niederschaeffolsheim in no time!

Strasbourg styles itself the Christmas capital of France. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

4 Christmas

Eastern France is most famous for its Christmas markets, which usually begin in late November and run until the end of the year.

Strasbourg and Colmar are popular choices for their hundreds of stalls, selling everything from tree decorations and artisanal teas, to hot wine and local delicacies like the tarte flambée. You also have the choice of markets in many quaint, smaller villages like Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, and there is even a “Navette de Noël” bus which will take you from village to village, beginning in Colmar. These markets were largely absent or scaled-down over Christmas 2020 due to the health restrictions, but will hopefully be back in 2021.

If that wasn’t enough to get you in the Christmas spirit, when it snows, the pointed roofs and colourful, timber-framed façades are redolent of gingerbread houses. There is perhaps no better place in France to spend the festive period (although stuffing your body full of fondue in the Alps does come a close second).

5 Education

In another nod to Alsace’s geography, children will often start German classes in primary school, meaning many students learn German before they learn English.

But languages aren’t the only subjects which are taught differently in this part of France. The 19th-century Concordat of Alsace-Moselle also provides an exception when it comes to religion. Unlike in the rest of the country, children in public schools in Alsace-Moselle receive classes in religious education, taught by members of four recognised faiths: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christianity, as well as Judaism.

6 Holidays

There’s another crucial part of that Concordat concerns public holidays and people living in Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine get 13 public holidays a year, compared to just 11 in the rest of France.

Good Friday and St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day on December 26th) are both holidays in Alsace and Lorraine. They had been days off when the territory was under German rule and when it returned to France in 1918 the locals weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of losing two days off and simply refused to give them up…perhaps demonstrating a French side to their natures which hadn’t been lost during all those the years of German rule.  

READ ALSO The French holiday calendar 2021 

The sun rises over the Kirchberg vineyards in Barr, Alsace. Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP

7 The wine

Ask your average visitor what they know about French wine, and they will probably talk about Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Champagne. But did you know that Alsace is also a great wine-producing region?

It is most famous for its whites, such as Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, and the vineyards provide a beautiful backdrop to local villages making the “Route des Vins d’Alsace” the perfect way to discover the region.

Alsatian wines also come in distinctive bottles, called “flûtes d’Alsace”, which are tall and thin. For another authentic touch, the wine can be served in traditional glasses which have long, green stems, and make the perfect souvenir.

8 The Currency

Local pride is a big thing here: a large majority of locals want Alsace to regain its regional status. Regional identity is so strong that the Bas-Rhin, the départment which covers the northern half of Alsace, even has its own currency, the Stück. One stück is worth one euro, and is accepted by 220 different companies and professionals across the Bas-Rhin, including in Strasbourg, with the aim of promoting local, ethical consumption.

9 The mentality

Like their neighbours in Lorraine, Alsatians have a reputation for being “cold” and “uncommunicative”.

It is undeniable that in terms of mentality as well as geography, north-eastern France is closer to Germany than to the Mediterranean. That being said, all you need to do to win over the locals is invite them for a choucroute and a good beer, and you’ll be best friends in no time. S’gilt! (that’s cheers in Alsace dialect).

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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”