The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France, where children sip wine, wants to end binge drinking

(Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

When the French school semester started in September, most college students had no lack of drinking opportunities. As is common in other countries, French freshmen are usually encouraged to drink heavily in initiation ceremonies. But soon the excessive drinking could face a sudden end. According to a French draft health bill, inciting binge drinking could be punishable with up to a  year in jail or a hefty fine.

"It will be made illegal to sell products that make alcohol appear pleasant,” French health minister Marisol Touraine reportedly told RTL radio. Targeted products could be "telephone cases or T-shirts that show amusing scenes based on drunkenness." Organizers of student parties would also be targeted, according to the minister. The proposed law which furthermore tackles other potential health hazards such as mass-produced food will need to pass France's General Assembly early next year before going into effect.

The proposed law is remarkable because France is among the world's most liberal countries in terms of alcohol consumption. The legal minimum age for consuming alcohol in public is 18, but there is no regulation of alcohol consumption in private. Children and particularly teenagers are sometimes served small amounts of alcohol by their parents at family dinners without having to fear any consequences.

While regular alcohol consumption among the young has been low despite these lax regulations, binge drinking poses a new and previously little-known problem. The country's General Commission of Terminology only recently defined binge drinking as the "massive consumption of alcohol, usually as part of a group, designed to cause intoxication in a minimum amount of time." Defining the phenomenon had become necessary in 2013 after a 30 percent rise in hospital admissions had been reported within only three years.

"We see more and more seriously drunk young people in the emergency room, who will stay for 24 hours, sometimes two days, to sober up," a French doctor told TV channel France24 last year. A 2013 study of the National Institute for Prevention and Health Education confirmed the fears of many parents and doctors that cases of binge drinking were rising rapidly.

This 2010 map shows how prevalent binge drinking is in Europe, looking at the countries' entire populations. The percentage refers to those who said they had been binge drinking within the 30 days before being surveyed.

Only a few years ago, the French considered public drunkenness to be a problem more native to countries further north, such as its cross-Channel neighbor Britain. In 2013, the British Association of Chief Police Officers estimated that 50 percent of all British incidents of violent crime were associated with alcohol, fueling the debate about the serious repercussions of binge drinking. According to the association, the costs of binge drinking amount to $18 billion a year, including health-care services.

While binge drinking is  on the rise in France, it has started to decline in Britain.

Earlier this year, a study found that binge drinking had become less popular among young British since the 2008 recession. “The proportion of youth who don’t drink alcohol at all has also risen sharply," partially due to a lack in disposable income, lead researcher Jonathan Shepherd explained in April.

French binge drinking, however, does not match this pattern. While France's economic outlook has continuously worsened, the popularity of binge drinking went up instead of going down.

So far, nobody has found a credible explanation for the rise, but some French think they know whom to blame. "The French kids are the worst because they want to be Anglo-Saxons," a waiter told the Observer newspaper in 2011. "They know it's what the English do, and they think it's cool to be boisterous," he added.

Nabila Ramdani, a Parisian commentator on Anglo-French affairs, offered a similar explanation. "It's to do with an increasing rejection of traditional French life, especially by young people," she said.