Thursday, 29 August 2013

Does France Have a Drink Problem?

The short answer is 'yes', and it has always had a hidden drink problem, but the problem has changed recently, and is much more openly discussed.

Alcoholism, liver disease and alcohol related cancers, heart disease and accidents appear to be significant killers in France, but nobody knows exactly how many people die of alcohol related causes every year, because the authorities have not standardised the data collected. The figure is probably somewhere between 30 000 and 50 000, with twice as many men as women dying of alcohol related causes, and nearly half of the deceased under 65. Alcohol related presentations at hospital Accident and Emergency clinics are definitely on the increase, as are hospital admissions due to alcohol related diseases (up 80% and 30% respectively in the last 5 years). I tried to get comparative figures from Australia, to give the French figures some context, but after a frustrating hour or so searching on the internet, it seems Australia does not present its statistics in the same way, so I can't compare apples with apples.

What is curious is that overall the number of people who drink alcohol is decreasing in France. This decrease is particularly striking amongst women. Older women and young women are much more likely than not to drink, but in the 30 - 60 year old age group, nearly half do not drink at all.

A decade ago and earlier, wine was the tipple of choice (along with pastis type aperitifs if you were a man). Beer and spirits didn't get much of a look in. Most people drank a glass or two (often more) of wine every day, but it was mostly in company and with food. It wasn't perceived as a problem, but as an important part of French culture. Being bien arrosé was a good thing (the phrase literally means 'well watered', and contains a sort of pun referencing the 'rosy glow' one gains after a glass or two and a good meal). A glass or two was good for the health. Until the 1980s no one thought anything of drinking and driving, but a very successful drink driving campaign has curbed the habitual nature of such behaviour.

Many French towns have a character who in small town Australia might be known as the aging town drunk, but here alcoholism is rarely mentioned and I've had such people described to me more than once as spécial. In French, to describe someone as 'special' generally means that the person can be intensely irritating, but generous and tolerant allowances are made on the grounds of how talented, creative and artistic they are. Alcoholism and mental illness are considered part of their personality, the tragic price one has to pay for the once extra ordinary mind. My personal observation is that these individuals are known by the locals, looked out for and looked after and not violent or frightening in any way.

What we do not yet have in this part of rural France to any great extent, but I am sure will come, is young binge drinkers. This is the new phenomenon that has France facing the fact that drinking can be a problem. Health warnings on bottles of alcohol were introduced a few years ago and the age people can legally buy alcohol raised to 18. The culture of introducing children to wine at a young age, in a family setting, seems to work just fine -- for wine. What the French hadn't counted on was the influence of travel and television, and their young people enthusiastically adopting beer and spirits, and the practice of drinking simply to get drunk. Drinking like this is often done in public, and is associated with violence and other anti-social behaviour. The drinking and the behaviour come as a package, learned from the UK and Germany in particular. You can tell it's now entrenched, as the Ministry of Culture has just approved the official French expression for binge drinking -- la beuverie express.

A friend of ours, who works in the wine industry, recently told us a story about going through the checkout at the supermarket with her weekly shop. A kid in his early to mid teens was in the queue behind her. He put his stuff down on the belt and both of them went through the checkout. What our friend hadn't realised is that he had surreptitiously put a bottle of wine amongst her purchases, which went through as hers and she paid for. As she was exiting the shopping centre the kid tapped her on the shoulder and said 'Excuse me, but you have my bottle of wine'. She tried to give him the benefit of the doubt by thinking that he had been sent by his mother for a bottle of cooking wine (it was in a plastic bottle and cost €2) but she is fairly sure that what he was actually doing was circumventing the possibility of being challenged about his age, and was just after some cheap alcohol for himself. She said it was extremely subtly done.

6 comments:

  1. Susan...
    up until the Great War, this area had breweries in almost every major town...
    mainly as the tap water needed to be boiled before being drunk and beer was "instant" and cold...
    beer was drunk alongside wine...
    they did in fact have a very good tradition of "table beer" at around 2.5%ABV that would be mixed with lemonade for the smallest kids.

    This tradition died at around the same period as water began being bottled in the '20s... but still exists in Belgium... and spirits grew in popularity after the Great War as men tried to escape from the horrors they had seen.

    The brewer at the Brasserie Sancerroise will give the full story if asked... but the clerestory around the top of the has 60 bottles from the 63 breweries in Centre in 1914...
    by 1939 this number had fallen to around 20 and the last brewery closed in 1967...
    around the same time as the European Wine Lakes began to puddle!!

    So people changed from regular drinking of mainly 5%ABV to around 12%ABV average...

    Now, small micros are beginning to try and edge into the market...
    but they are up against a heavy lobby from the shrinking wine and spirits idustry!!
    But, the Simply Market in Liguel has a full "row end" promo of the Turone brews from Cormery and Le Clerc in Perruson carries the Pigeonelle "Salamander" as standard and the Super U at "Rich Posers" has the brews from the Poitou Charente brewery... otherwise it is "specialist" shops like Terry Froots and Gammy Leg [who carry the Du Boufay brews] that support the micros.

    The other drink in France was cider and perry... drunk from the barrel in a stoneware cup... and never more than 5%ABV... main production of this has shrunk to the North of France... although, from the Super Us, you can get cider from Limousin!
    Gatault, the farm near the Bee-Eater spot on the road past us, still has a perry pear and a cider apple tree up by the road!
    This year they are both heavy with small fruit!

    Apologies for this extensive "blog-post" comment on yours, but I felt that it would add to the subject.

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  2. Tim: very interesting, and a valuable addition to the discussion, many thanks. My information is primarily sourced from 20th century memoirs, but your information harks back to an earlier time again.

    There doesn't seem to have been a brewery in Preuilly, and I don't know where the nearest one would have been. Certainly between the wars everyone here had their own parcel of vines and made their own wine. I haven't heard anything about home brewing, although home distilling took place.

    What you say may tie in with something I have heard about the area around Azay-le-Rideau. Apparently after the phylloxera outbreak and the loss of labour after WWI, everyone switched from vines to apples, and it wasn't until the 1950s that wine became a commercial proposition again there. I haven't heard that they were making cider though, just juice.

    I would have thought that most of the water in this area was fit to drink without boiling -- after all it was mostly well water, filtered through limestone. There was no tap water until the 1960s in most places here.

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  3. Deep wells perhaps... our well is only 19ft deep... little filtration!
    But even so, wells were often left open to the air...
    not properly covered...
    anything could fall in and decay...
    so boiling was de-rigeur.
    Even pump water was boiled... there was no water analysis as there is today...
    you didn't know what you were getting, so it was force of habit.

    "Eau non-potable" was the sign on almost all hotel taps until well into the '70s.

    It is part of the reason that supermarkets carry such a vast range of bottled water...
    although that can get rather silly...
    one London restaurant has a Water Sommelier...
    when I watched the interview on't'telly, he was actually fascinating to listen to...

    Oh...
    and natural, home-pressed apple juice becomes cider doux very rapidly...
    the natural yeasts are not killed off...
    and an almost "lambic" style of fermentation takes place.

    Locally, at vide-greniers, I have seen bottles from Chateauroux, Descartes, Chatellerault, Liguel, Loches...
    the bottles tend to be plain colours...
    shades of brown, yellow and green...
    the brewery label as such was the screw or Grolsch style top.
    Often the label on the bottle was an inkstamp rolled onto a whitewash background...
    Burton Bridge Brewery in the UK revivied the technique in their early years...
    it was dead cheap!!

    I would collect them (if allowed)...
    but I haven't yet started to get out my colection of British brewerania.

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  4. Tim: Many thanks again for the additional info -- all very interesting.

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  5. My husband remembers the family in the country in Belgium drinking a low alcohol sweetish beer with meals up to the early 1960s...and the reason given was that the water was not reliable.
    I remember the eau non potable signs in France in the 60s and 70s.

    There was certainly a pattern of heavy drinking among men in the first area I lived in in France in the 80s but I only noticed youngsters drinking in the last few years - to the extent that the 'fill your own bottle' tap in the local Leclerc was removed as the kids from the Lycee were filling up and boozing in the aisles of the supermarket.

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  6. huh, that's very informative.

    France is often touted in Canada as the alcohol model to follow -- lower heart disease, moderation, no shame and binge drinking, just moderation.

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