ANALYSIS: Why the French are drinking less and less wine

Wine plays a uniquely important role in French society, once upon a time it was even served to children in school canteens - but these days the French are drinking less and less, so what is the future of the French wine industry?

ANALYSIS: Why the French are drinking less and less wine
A man serves a glass of wine during the official 'Semaine des Primeurs,' in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

From the so-called ‘French paradox’ to the changing face of society – French drinking habits have undergone a radical shift over the past 70 years, with just one in 10 French people now drinking alcohol every day.

So what has caused this change?

Wine is a relatively recent addition to France – in that it only began under the Roman occupation. Prior to that, people in what is now France drank beer.

According to wine expert and co-founder of the Académie des Vins et Spiritueux, Sylvain Removille, wine was essentially the currency of the day. “The Romans brought the Gauls wine, and it became one of the biggest reasons for pax romana in Gaul,” said Romeville. 

In the following centuries, France’s economy remained largely agricultural. Most of the laws related to wine prior to World War II were focused on ensuring its quality, rather than legislating its consumption. 

In the 1950s, the government began efforts to reduce alcohol consumption. Then-prime minister Pierre Mendès France organised the first public, government-led campaign to discourage heavy drinking, with the simple goal of encouraging people to limit alcohol consumption to “less than a litre per meal.” 

Then, in 1956, the government took up the issue of alcohol in school cafeterias, making it illegal (for the first time) for children under the age of 14 to drink wine at school, a practice which was common at the time.

But for Romeville, who has studied wine for over 30 years, government intervention is not responsible for the drop in wine consumption over the years, but rather the change in the French economy.

“It’s definitely a result of how work has changed over the last thirty years,” said Romeville.

“After World War II, we had to rebuild everything, so there was a lot of physical labour to be done. At the time, France was also still a largely rural country – it was a country of agrarian production. We had workers in the cities and workers in the fields, and these people had  to do very hard physical labour, so they needed energy. 

The average worker might consume a litre of wine per meal, especially around lunchtime because they needed an energy source. But now France has changed: more people work in offices and people drink less.”

A Move Toward Quality over Quantity 

Wine writer and historian Rod Phillips explains that drinking must be seen in a socio-cultural context: “Working in offices is a change in the context of many people’s daily routines. People are less likely to drink a lot, especially at lunch time, when they have to go back to work in the afternoon,” said Phillips. 

The thirty years after World War II in France are still colloquially referred to as “Les Trente Glorieuses,” (The Thirty Glorious Years). It was a time when the French economy grew rapidly, and French standards of living – as well as salaries – significantly increased. According to Romeville, so too did the way the French viewed wine.

“People could afford to buy more expensive wine, so we saw an increase in demand for more expensive wines. This happened alongside innovation in wine cultivation itself,” explained Romeville.

As the world globalised and scientific knowledge about what is truly included in terroir grew, wine production techniques became more advanced, allowing for a higher quality of wine to be produced. 

Image: The Local

Once only a luxury of the upper classes, demand for fine wine has expanded to the middle classes, particularly in the last thirty years, according to Phillips. 

“Now, among middle class people, women and men, and younger people, wine has become a sign of sophistication. This used to be mostly older, wealthy men,” he said.

So people started to drink less, but began to buy better. In 1980, more than half of French adults consumed wine on a daily. Today, only about 10 percent of French adults report daily consumption.

“Knowing something about wine, knowing producers or varieties – it is a lifestyle thing now. That is fairly new. I would put that back to the late 1990s and early 2000s. It now has this caché among a broader band of the demographics than it used to.”

What about public health?

The other major factor that influenced the decrease in wine consumption is increasing awareness of the health risks.

The Loi Evin, passed in 1991 and still in effect today, regulates advertising and mass communication for alcohol and tobacco. One of the primary goals with passing the law was to decrease alcoholism, as well as to protect children and young people from alcohol advertising by adding a disclaimer that alcohol abuse carries serious health ramifications.

READ MORE: Why do the French live so long?

In contrast to the “French Paradox,” the idea claiming a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away, a recent study on Europeans’ found that the French are changing their attitudes on the ‘healthiness of wine,’ specifically as a result of policies advising constraints on wine consumption.

Phillips echoed this theory, “I think health is one thing. For a long time there has been this idea in France that wine is good for you, I think that has changed dramatically.” 

But for Romeville, the effects of Loi Evin have only stood to harm French drinking habits, by indirectly introducing more binge drinking.

“The law [Evin] taught people alcohol was bad for their health,” said Romeville. “Now there is less consumption per day, but more consumption per sitting.” To him, the more restrictive the laws around drinking, the more it will encourage indulgent drinking habits, rather than “a healthy one or two glasses a day.”

Dr. Guillaume Airagnes, a psychiatrist specialising in addiction at the Georges-Pompidou Hospital in Paris, co-authored a report on the negative impacts of alcohol consumption. He told the Irish Times that “There is no such thing as alcohol consumption that is beneficial to health,” refuting the age-old French Paradox. 

Even with diminishing levels of consumption, the study still found that almost 30 percent of the French population has some level of alcohol dependency. 

Though public health officials might be cheering a steady decrease in drinking, the shift is not as popular amongst politicians, or institutions that exist to protect France’s wine industry – including the Department of Agriculture.

In 2019, France’s then Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume blamed mixers and hard liquor for binge drinking, arguing that wine “isn’t like other alcohols.”

In a similar vein, President Emmanuel Macron said he did not plan on proposing any further legislation to curb alcohol consumption, adding: “Personally, I drink wine at lunch and dinner.”

The health ministry’s current guidance is that you should have no more than two glasses of wine per day, not exceed 10 per week and should not drink not every day. 

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First suspected case of monkeypox reported in France

France reported its first suspected case of monkeypox on Thursday, after cases of the virus were reported in several neighbouring countries.

First suspected case of monkeypox reported in France

A first suspected case of monkeypox in France was reported in the Paris area on Thursday, the country’s direction générale de la santé has said, two weeks after a first case of the virus in Europe was discovered in the UK.

Since that first case was reported on May 6th, more than 30 other cases have been confirmed in Spain, Portugal, the UK, Sweden, Canada and the USA.

Here we explain what is known about the viral disease.

Why is it called monkeypox?

The virus was first identified in 1958 in laboratory monkeys – which is where the name comes from – but rodents are now considered the probable main animal host.

It is mainly observed in isolated areas of central and western Africa, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, with the first case in humans reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Why is it in the news?

Monkeypox does not usually spread beyond Western and Central Africa. It is the first time, for example, it has been identified in Spain or Portugal.

It is believed the relaxing of Covid-19 travel rules have allowed the virus to spread further than usual.

The first case in the UK was reported on May 6th, in a patient who had recently travelled to Nigeria. But in the eight cases reported since, several had no connection to each other, and none had recently travelled, prompting experts to believe a number of cases have gone unreported.

Scientists are now working to find out if those cases are linked. 

What are the symptoms?

Initially, the infected patient experiences fever, headache, muscle pain, inflammation of the lymph node, backache and severe fatigue. Then pimples appear, first on the face, then in the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. The mucous membranes of the mouth, genitals and cornea may also be affected. 

It has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as similar but less serious than smallpox. In most cases, symptoms disappear in two to three weeks and the patient makes a full recovery.

There are two known strains of the virus: the more severe Congo strain and the West African strain. UK cases reported to date have been the West African strain.

How is it transmitted?

Monkeypox is most often transmitted to humans by infected rodents or primates through direct contact with blood, body fluids, or skin or mucous membrane lesions of these animals. 

Human-to-human transmission occurs primarily through respiratory droplet particles during prolonged contact. But contamination can come from close contact with skin lesions of an infected individual or from objects, such as bedding, recently contaminated with biological fluids or materials from a patient’s lesions.

More severe cases are related to the length of time patients are exposed to the virus, their state of health, and whether the virus leads to other health complications. 

Young children are more sensitive to this virus.

Can it be treated?

There is no specific treatment or preventive vaccine against monkeypox – and the huge majority of patients recover fully with appropriate care.

Smallpox vaccination was effective in the past at also providing protection from monkeypox, but with that disease considered eradicated, people are no longer vaccinated against it, which has allowed monkeypox to spread once again. 

Should we be worried?

Experts have said that we’re not going to see the virus reach epidemic levels.

“There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission alone can maintain monkeypox in the human population,” the WHO has said.