As I pen this week’s column, the result of the French election has just come over the wire. Emmanuel Macron’s victory, for the moment, has stemmed the tide of the populist party. But the influence of Marine Le Pen’s party in French politics has yet to unfold. What does the future hold for France as a nation and as an influential member of the European Union?
Of course, as a wine writer, my thoughts have now shifted beyond the political turmoil in France to the social changes that have been transforming the nation in recent years – especially the eating and drinking habits amongst the populace.
It seems that the once enviable French lifestyle is beginning to unravel before our 21st century eyes and sensibilities. I’ve been following a number of statistical reports that indicate a sea change in the food and wine preferences of the French.
For decades, the U.S. has envied the French lifestyle: mandated short workweeks; a generous welfare system; long, leisurely meals; the ultimate Mediterranean Diet; healthy citizens; magnificent cuisine; excellent organic local food products and a wine industry that garnered praise year after year.
Perhaps this is why for decades the French resisted the pressures of the changing world around them. While Americans were becoming a “Fast Food Nation,” subservient to the technological revolution, the French seemingly turned up their noses and went about their centuries-old practices and traditions. But then change wielded its hand.
First, the European Union was formed; the French were required to open their borders and comply with restrictive regulations over local, indigenous products. Second, the American-led technological revolution changed business and cultures worldwide – the world is flat, mon frère. Here come the Americans – and the Chinese, Indians, Africans, Middle Easterners – into France’s once private corner. And with them, divergent cultural influences, from food styles, pop culture, fast-paced lifestyles, and oh yes, the corresponding stress.
Here are a few examples of this change:
- The young are gravitating away from wine as their alcoholic beverage of choice. Wine consumption is declining while liquor (mainly vodka) and beer are gaining in popularity. French wine consumption has declined nearly 50% in the past few decades. France has lost its long-standing worldwide leadership in wine consumption, falling from first to third.
- At the same time, the rest of the winemaking world has increased its production of quality wines at price points lower than the French, driving down demand for French wines. A double whammy: lower domestic consumption and more foreign competition. The hardest hit are the Bordeaux and Champagne wineries.
- French cuisine, while still thriving in many local bistros and cafes, has become stagnant. High profile restaurants follow the dictates of Classic French Cuisine – ingredients like butter, cream and foie gras continue to dominate. However, French diners now prefer a more modern approach to food. A testament to this change in preference and availability is evident in two statistics. In 1960 there were 200,000 cafes, a reflection of France’s love of dining out. Last year the number dropped to 40,000. Where have all the gourmands gone? France is now the second most profitable market in the world for McDonalds.
- We’re all familiar with the French Paradox: high consumption of fatty foods with a low incidence of coronary disease. That was then. Now, as a result of lower consumption of wine and the McDonaldization of the nation, a number of diseases are on the rise. Ironically, as the U.S. is increasingly adopting a Mediterranean diet, the Mediterraneans are adopting our diet. This does not bode well for the French.
And there’s no relief on the horizon. The French government has published guidelines discouraging the consumption of alcohol, especially wine. However, binge drinking is on the rise amongst the young. Only time will tell the fate of the French. Politically and socially, France and the United States are moving in opposite directions, each seeking to learn lessons from the other. We’re all in trouble now.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.