French wine policies: more questions than answers

February 23rd, 2009

"Straw Man". From:

"Straw Man". From:

Something strange is happening in France. The country, whose identity only 20-some years ago included a culture and appreciation of wine, appears to be under siege of an anti-alcohol faction. Most recently, we see evidence of this in ludicrous statements by the nation’s Ministry of Health that consumption of even small amounts of wine increases the risk of cancer.

I am a proponent of evidence-based medicine. This statement, however, is based on bad science. While the commentary on the Ministry’s assertion, or what appears to be the execution of an agenda, is strongly negative, I am at a loss for finding any background information for how this anti-alcohol trend in France came about. Other than blaming the teetotalism of President Sarkozy, the commentators whose writings on the matter I have read to date, offer no insights into more substantial and meaningful explanation of why France is experiencing this anti-alcohol movement.

I started this blog with the tenet that “a commentator should be … a thinker who challenges beliefs, warns of consequences and points to less obvious options.” For this reason, I have been seeking to understand what social, political, cultural or health phenomena or trends are giving momentum to this prohibitionist wave. No luck so far.

Hussein, Castro, Stalin, Hitler and Bin Laden have all been portrayed as the embodiments of ideologies and being the driving force of their movements. Without exception, each man and the movement they led, was successful owing to the convergence of their own ambition and drive as well as the broader political, social and economic circumstances. History has shown that it is common for a party which newly came to power to seize the opportunity of their position of power and implement its agenda. This truth notwithstanding, support and ideological buy-in at the grassroots level are the rate-determining agents for any social and political movement.

Furthermore, zealotry or extremism of any color and form is made all the more extreme when it is expressed in reaction to some other trend, occurrence or set of circumstances. In fact, the intensity of voicing or pursuing extremist platforms tends to be increased in response to some social, political or economic events. In this way, the shill cry of a few can dictate the status quo for the entire country.

It is a cop out, however, to shrug off this trend as coming about due to some isolated health zealotry or the abstinence of the current president. (If this notion were true, wine sales in the U.S. would have experienced a slump in wine consumption from 2001 to 2008.) This attitude is not only lazy. Not seeking to understand the social, economic and cultural undercurrents affecting wine consumption in one country deprives other countries of valuable object lessons. The American Temperance movement and subsequent Prohibition did not arise spontaneously and they did not consume an unsuspecting and unreceptive country.

So, I have some questions which may help guide my understanding of the situation in France. Readers are welcome to offer their answers or use the questions as springboards for their own posts and articles:

  1. Are there legal issues specific to France driving this trend? Do they have a rise in drunk driving and related road fatalities? Is alcohol abuse by young people below the legal drinking age or by those above that age a serious problem in France? Has there been a rise in alcohol-related crime-domestic and otherwise?
  2. Is there a public health reason for this movement? Are there uniquely high incidences of alcohol-related diseases and deaths in France? Wine consumption in France has been on the decline for some time now. What epidemiological grounds (other than fabricated or altered statistics) could warrant the Ministry’s actions?
  3. Is there an undue economic burden put on the country by wine production and consumption? Are subsidies of French vineyards straining the treasury? Is there an increased burden on the country’s socialized health care system brought about by an increased incidence of alcohol-related health problems? Are there other, less obvious, economic or monetary motivations to this movement?
  4. Are there new social or cultural phenomena in France forming a groundswell of teetotalism? Has there been a rise of religious factions which may oppose alcohol consumption? Can this trend be attributed to any impact that France’s rising Muslim population may have on collective social values? Is the French attitude towards changing fundamentally for other social reasons? Could this trend be, in any way, related to what many bemoan as the changing character of French wine?
  5. Is there a political motivation for these policies? I France under pressure from the E.U. to alter its wine production and consumption?

I am not seeking excuses here. I want explanations. I want understanding. I do not believe that any one person can drive the policies and values of a whole nation. These ideas must resonate with a number of people outside the government in order to gain traction. There must be some reason, other than cultural totalitarianism, for this French phenomenon. This trend may be extreme, but it has to have some context and history. I’m eager to see an exploration of this topic. If, in the end, we learn that this is another example of political tug-of-war, so be it. However, at least we’ll looked beyond straw man explantions.


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One Response to “French wine policies: more questions than answers”

  1. Nancy Says:

    My instinct tells me that it must have something to do with the increasingly Muslim character of the country. Writers like Bruce Bawer and Bernard Lewis say that France may be only the first European nation to live under sharia, definitely within this century and very likely in our lifetimes. There may be other explanations, but to me that’s the elephant in the room.