During the summer after my sophomore year in college, I spent six weeks studying and living with a family in the French city of Avignon. Each night at dinner, the father of the family replenished my glass throughout the meal, pouring it from a big jug that he kept on the floor next to his chair.
This was France. Red wine flowed freely (and cheaply) in this region of the Rhone valley, and I was happy to take part in the custom. What surprised me, however, was that–even in France–the family’s 8-year-old son was also served a glass each evening, though his was filled half with red wine, half with water. Maybe it was to make him sleep better, I wondered. But as I came to learn, the idea of introducing children to alcohol at home was meant to normalize its enjoyment…in moderation.
On a recent trip to France, I learned that things are no longer as laissez-faire when it comes to drinking–particularly when it comes to moderation. Once thought to be a problem belonging exclusively to the British and the Americans, le “binge drinking” has arrived in France and grown steadily in recent years.
“Half of 17-year-olds in France admitted getting excessively drunk at least once in the last month, while a small minority confessed to binge drinking more than twice a week,” wrote Henry Samuel in an article on Telegraph.com.
Once I learned of this trend, I started asking French people why they thought binge drinking had become a problem in France.
“Young people are so stressed and have little to look forward to nowadays,” said a woman named Nathalie, the mother of three children in their twenties.
“Growing up today, the choices are to go to the army, become a police officer or a soccer player,” said Stefan, a bookstore owner in a small village.
Although Stefan’s comment sounds extreme, it is true that France’s unemployment rate is at an all-time high. An article on Bloomberg.com reported that there are now 2.9 million people out of work in France—nearly 10 percent of the workforce and the most in 12 years.
During a conversation with my friend, Marc, and his girlfriend, who live in Paris, they explained that university students in France are frustrated by future work prospects and the stress has led to the binge drinking trend. Awareness of the issue led to an campaign (photo on right) aiming to prevent binge drinking. It reads: I woke up naked. We drank. I don’t remember.
Once thinking the problem was exclusively surrounding university students, the French government banned “L’Open Bar,” a regular event at French universities where students paid a flat entry fee and had access to unlimited booze. But it’s not only the students who are binge drinking, writes Alison Eastaway on her blog, “My French Life.” Excessive drinking is a wider problem in France, where similar sorts of drinking opportunities could also be found in chic Parisian nightclubs on a weekly basis.
“In an attempt to prop up business on what would otherwise be a quiet night, clubs all over the French capital offer what is known as “L’After Work,” writes Eastaway. For 15 euros—about 18 dollars—you get entry, a buffet dinner and, for all those thirsty young professionals, unlimited wine for two hours. (The unlimited wine was eventually limited to 5 glasses.)
Yet there I sat a few weeks ago at the home of a family where my own daughter did a homestay during a high school summer. Together, we drank champagne as an aperitif before dinner–it was completely natural for them to offer a glass to my younger daughter, a 16-year-old, though she declined–and continued with wine during dinner. For this family, and many in France, drinking continues to be a ritual that is shared among family and friends and most often around the table.
The French have long been accustomed–albeit reluctantly–to adapt to English terms like “le weekend” and “le T-shirt.” But now, unfortunately, they have no choice but to accept and deal with both the term and effects of “le binge drinking.”