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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New French State aid to help older people make home improvements

A new accessibility scheme recently announced by the French government gives grants for home improvements such as installing a stair lift or widening a doorframe to allow wheelchair access - here is how you could benefit.

New French State aid to help older people make home improvements

According to a recent survey in France, the vast majority of retired people expressed a desire to stay in their homes long-term, rather than entering a care facility.

While there are several schemes by the French government to provide assistance for renovating homes in order to make them more accessible for elderly people, the newly announced “MaPrimeAdapt” seeks to streamline the process.

When was it announced?

MaPrimeAdapt was part of President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election campaign, with plans for it first announced by the president last November.

Most recently, the government aid was earmarked to receive funding in the upcoming 2023 budget, which also hopes to increase the number of nursing home employees, as well as boost public funding for care centres.

The budget is set to allocate €35 million to the National Housing Agency (ANAH) in 2023. In response, the ministry of housing said to Capital France that one of their top priorities is “a single aid for the adaptation of housing to ageing” that would replace several existing government subsidies.

What is the goal of Ma Prime Adapt?

Similar to Ma Prime Renov, this programme hopes to provide additional funding for home refurbishment.

But while Ma Prime Renov focuses on environmentally friendly home adaptations, Ma Prime Adapt aims to make it simpler for older people or those with disabilities to refurbish their homes in order to maintain their autonomy and avoid falls.  

The French government also aims to reduce the number of fatal or disabling falls of people aged 65 by at least 20 percent by 2024, and by 2032, the goal is for at least 680,000 homes to be adapted, particularly those of low-income older people.

Who can benefit?

According to reporting by Le Monde, this aid is not solely reserved for people who already have decreased mobility. 

Instead, it is intended for older people generally. When applying, the applicant must be able to demonstrate that they are an independent retiree and need (this could be based on income, age, health, etc) to adapt their housing in order to make it more accessible.

The amount of assistance offered will be means-tested based on financial status.

What types of work would qualify?

Some examples of work that might qualify for assistance might be:

  • adapting the bathroom (for example, adding grab bars or enlarging the door)
  • replacing the bathtub with a shower
  • installing a bathtub with a door
  • installing a stair lift
  • adding access ramps to the home

The benefit is not limited to those options – any project that aims to increase home accessibility for a senior could qualify, as long as it is not simply aesthetic-focused.

Can it be combined with Ma Prime Renov?

They have different criteria, but Ma Prime Renov and Ma Prime Adapt can be combined in order to provide maximum support to elderly people wishing to adapt and stay in their homes.

How can I apply?

In order to apply, you will be required to meet the conditions stated above, in addition to being able to demonstrate that the housing in question is at least 15 years old and that the amount of work being done would cost at least €1,500.

Keep in mind that the renovation will need to be carried out by a recognised building company or contractor – specifically one with the label “RGE.”

You will be able  toapply for the Ma Prime Adapt aid via France’s National Housing Agency (ANAH). A dedicated website will be created to facilitate the process, with a launch date TBC. 

On the site, you will submit an application form that includes the estimates of the work planned. According to Le Monde, €5,600 will be the maximum amount of aid to be offered, and the cost of work will be capped at €8,000. However, this information has not yet been published by the National Housing Agency. 

What have the other available schemes been?

Currently, retirees in France can apply for the “Habiter facile” scheme from the ANAH (Agence Nationale de l’Habitat), which also helps to finance work that promotes the ability of elderly people to remain in their homes.

“Bien vieillir chez soi” is a similar aid scheme which is offered by the CNAV (social security).

The elderly and disabled can also benefit from tax credits on accessibility or home adaptation work. 

These will likely be replaced by Ma Prime Adapt, which will combine all benefits into one package.