Why the French went off wine

Image of Simon Kuper

When I moved to Paris a decade ago, waiters in my local cafés would still give it a try. Taking orders at lunchtime, they’d ask, “Wine, monsieur?” Now they no longer bother. “A carafe of water?” they’ll ask, defeatedly. Wine-drinking here has been in constant decline since the 1960s. Admittedly, France is still not like bits of the US, where anyone ordering a lunchtime glass is apparently assumed to have a drinking problem, but it is getting there. In Parisian cafés at breakfast, you seldom now see people fortifying themselves for the day ahead with a ballon de rouge. This is a story about globalisation, about France becoming more like the world. But it’s a happier story than you might think.

The French once practically lived off wine. To borrow P.G. Wodehouse’s phrase, they discovered that alcohol was a food years before the doctors did. The medieval custom of drinking wine because it was cleaner than water persisted into the age of sanitation. In 1939 the average French person still consumed more than half a bottle of wine per day, or well above today’s recommended healthy maximum. No wonder that many commentators blamed the country’s collapse to Hitler on “the fact that France had a bar for every 80 persons, as compared with 270 in Germany, 430 in Britain, and 3,000 in Sweden”, writes Robert Paxton in Vichy France.

Even postwar, wine remained integral to life. Gérard Faesch, a restaurateur in Paris, recalls that in the 1960s builders or sailors might down several litres during a working day. Peasants working the fields would subsist on trouspinette (wine mixed with blackthorn and sugar). Small children were given watered-down wine. The French seldom got visibly drunk, because that might induce the thing they fear above all else: an etiquette breach. However, many of them walked around almost permanently sozzled. From 1950 through 1965, Frenchmen were about 70 times more likely than British men to die of alcohol-related causes, says the UK’s Institute of Alcohol Studies.

“Wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its very own, like its 360 types of cheese and its culture. It is a totem-drink,” explained the philosopher Roland Barthes, an acute observer of all things until he walked into a Parisian laundry van in 1980. Wine, wrote Barthes, was seen in France as an earthy, peasant or proletarian drink. “Society calls anyone who does not believe in wine by names such as sick, disabled or depraved,” he said.

But in recent decades modernity in all its forms has put the French off wine. Firstly, the shift from farms to offices shortened lunches and encouraged alertness in the afternoons. Later, the government began to warn that, contrary to popular belief, constant drinking was not in fact brilliant for health. The ancient national custom of drunk-driving was finally tackled. And so wine morphed from being a French staple into a treat. (The Italian trend is, incidentally, very similar.) France now has only the world’s fourth-highest rate of wine consumption, according to California’s Wine Institute. (Vatican City tops the table.) Today’s average French intake is barely a quarter that of 1939. Just 12 per cent of adults still drink alcohol daily, says the French Health Barometer survey for 2010.

And as the world has intruded on France, the alcohol that French people drink is changing. Oldies stick with wine (though generally better wines than the vins ordinaires of the past), but the young have discovered beer, spirits and sometimes even le binge drinking. In short, the French now drink more like everyone else.

This might seem like a loss, a typical example of globalisation reducing France. However, that would be a simplistic analysis. For a start, French civilisation is simultaneously in decline and conquering the world. In drink as in other domains, France still shapes global tastes. Around the world, wine has become the upmarket drinking option – the opposite of earthy, proletarian or peasant beer. Soon middle-aged male “wine bores” will be as much a Chinese affliction as a French one.

Crucially, too, many French people crave globalisation more than they fear it. The current “Barrez-vous” campaign, which urges young French people to emigrate, at least temporarily, notes that many in this generation see themselves as living in the world as much as in France. In drinking habits, as elsewhere, globalisation is giving French people more choices of how to live. That old wine culture concealed ample misery. (Imagine having a father drinking several litres a day.) Today, people in my quartier are free to enjoy a cheeky Chinon, but also to visit the local Argentine deli or brilliant Shanghainese restaurant.

In other words, the decline of wine illustrates how globalisation has improved France. It’s just that most French people are currently too gloomy to admit it.


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