Saturday, March 14, 2009

L'alcool est mal, as the French hear

Disdainful is the tone of today's wine column in the Financial Times. The French minister of health and sports, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, is coming heavy against wine.

She co-mingles her two portfolios. The sports part of her job is youth centric. She spares nothing in health. She's taking on prescription drugs (she had a doctorate in that field), cell phones (cancer), cigarettes, obesity, SIDS, AIDS and much more.

Our stereotypes suffer here. The casual French family sharing wine daily at meals, including with their children, is integral to French literature, cinema and, well, experience. From picnics to restaurants, wine in particular is integral to the nation, or was.

In the distant and not so distant past, the business of wine production and sales produced omnipotent lobbies. The FT's Jancis Robinson laments today's weakened and watered down (pun intended) versions of vintagers and vintners.


Think of the children!


Morally armed as she was in anti-smoking in cafés, Bachelot holds her shield of office between wine and the children. While it is difficult to hold that the idea of forbidding youths under 18 from drinking is bad, there is a conflation of evil here.

France does not have the earned reputation of say a Russia. There are numerous alcoholics and the French love to blame any physical problem on their livers. However, there is no equivalent to the vodka dominance and its concomitant levels of violence, unemployment,, divorce and early death.

Instead, the French have or had long been an epitome of the classic rule of moderation. The idea that children could sip small amounts of wine with a meal, as their parents enjoyed a few glasses has worked for centuries. The sudden calls for abstinence and claims that alcohol, any amount of alcohol, is a crime against your body and brain are new.

In reality, unlike the United States and Sweden for two examples, France does not have a serious problem with tippling teens. Perhaps Bachelot is just in prophylactic mode.

Where France does have a problem is in adult poor judgment, specifically drunk driving. The consistent findings are that 45% of fatal car accidents there involve a drunk driver.

Yet, it is the industry of wine and not the proven problem in the ministers sights. As Robinson writes:
In France, one of the few voices to speak out against what he calls the "hygienists" and their calamitous effect on the wine business is journalist Jacques Dupont of Le Point, but the vintners themselves seem almost resigned to their demonisation by France’s powerful health lobby.
Abstinence campaigns haven't seem to work anywhere. However, the FT reports that wine sales are down in France. That could be temporary or it could signal a shift to hard liquor, at least among younger adults.

Among the numerous little jests here are:
  1. Research all around suggests a glass or even two a day makes adults healthier
  2. Messing with the national heritage often has deleterious effects in odd ways
  3. Delivering another blow to the economy right now does not seem savvy
Moreover, some economists have admired France for production of high-end consumables. While the U.S., German and other countries seemed to concentrate largely on durable goods, France exported goods that were meant to be used up and replaced.

Here, we liked to make track-mounted motorized tractors (bulldozers) with lifespans of decades. Typical French exports were wine, cheese, perfume and other ephemera. Drink 'em, spritz 'em on, eat 'em...and it's time to get more of the same or similar.

The French make passable construction equipment. Where's the fun in that? Would Bachelot convert her country into another Germany? Oops, that's a bad example with all that beer swilling.

I'd rather not see a teetotalling France. Strict enforcement of drinking and driving, on the café and bar owners as well as drivers seems reasonable. Taking the goblet from everyone's hand does not.

As Robinson quotes wine broker Charles Sydney, "The French don’t seem to respond well to being asked to change their behaviour or their attitudes, but they do respond to being fined."

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