France considers its cuisine exceptional and has fought for centuries to preserve it from foreign trends. But the struggle has intensified in recent decades with the globalization of fast-food chains. Consequently, in 2011, the French banned ketchup from most meals served in school cafeterias.
When American-style "free refills" were recently introduced by fast-food restaurants in France, the backlash was swift and sustained. Doctors feared a rise in obesity rates, while others were more generally concerned about the country's gastronomic quality being drowned by free soda fountains.
The recent resistance has striking similarities with the efforts of then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prohibit the sale of sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces in 2012. One year later, however, the state Supreme Court ruled Bloomberg's plans unconstitutional, much to the consternation of health advocates who had hoped for a curb on unhealthy sodas and sweets.
France's outcry has not been caused by politicians, though. Instead, experts and restaurant owners have taken the lead.
Serge Hercberg, who heads a public nutrition and health initiative in Paris, told a British newspaper that free refills should be banned. "It is in total contradiction with public health recommendations. I oppose all marketing practices that encourage people to consume excessive quantities of unhealthy products," he said, expressing a more general feeling of many French.
The outcry has now reached the national political stage because one of the participating fast-food chains, Quick, is in part controlled by the French government. As the Telegraph reports, the free-refills initiative has fueled a 10 percent increase in the quantity of sodas dispensed.
This is particularly odd because the French government has been on the forefront of programs trying to limit the consumption of sugary sodas and sweets. Vending machines were replaced with water tanks in schools, and companies were required to warn potential consumers of health hazards in advertisements. In 2010, a study found that obesity levels had not increased since 1998 for children of higher-income parents and observed a similar, if weaker, trend among lower-income youths. The popularity of fast food, however, has risen — making the French the European leaders in burger consumption after the British.
When it comes to soft drinks, the French have always been a bit more cautious. Let's look at the numbers: This map, based on 2011 data from market researcher Euromonitor, shows that the French annually consume fewer soft drinks per person than their neighbors do.
The international comparison becomes particularly interesting when we include the United States, which has the world's largest per capita consumption of soft drinks. Americans purchase four times as many soft drinks on average than the French, which amounts to 170 liters a year.