Vegetarianism in France: Natural, or Non?

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Vegetarianism in France is on the rise. But is this a socially responsible, health-conscious attempt to preserve global resources and combat increasingly publicized poor animal treatment, or an economic decision influenced by diet marketing and economic strife?

Traditionally, French cuisine and its host of famous staple dishes (boeuf bourgignon, foie gras, and poulet rôti to name a few) is globally revered as the highest form of culinary art. It is also well understood to be a cuisine that consists of rich, fatty, buttery foods – with some form of animal protein as an indispensible staple. But things are changing in France. Vegetarianism is on the rise, and meat consumption is down – as much as 2% in 2013, a continuation of a downward trend experienced since at least 2011. Falling demand for meat (beef and veal specifically) in France is not due to the rise of vegetarianism, although the two are related. Ultimately, experts cite rising unemployment rates and the global financial crisis as culprits for the decrease in meat consumption, as French citizens are cutting back on grocery expenses in response to tighter financial situations. This lack of disposable income leads to a diet that focuses more heavily on vegetables and cheaper protein sources, framing vegetarianism as an appealing dietary and lifestyle choice.

Vegetarianism is a dietary practice inspired by religion, health concerns, environmentalism, or political activism. In the United States, vegetarianism is largely driven by political, environmental, and health concerns. In 2013, 13% of Americans identified as vegetarians according to a Public Policy Polling survey. Even more Americans attest to following a vegetarian-based diet or testify that the lifestyle sounds appealing for health or environmental reasons. By contrast, only around 2% of French citizens follow a vegetarian diet. But even in the past year, the number of vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants in France (mostly Paris) has grown, and vegetarianism is emerging as a commonly understood and accepted dietary practice. Alain Ducasse, a French celebrity chef, has unveiled a new menu at his luxury Plaza Athénée restaurant in Paris that focuses largely on vegetarian dishes. Citing environmental concerns and consumption ethics, Ducasse pledges to cut back on animal proteins in favor of dishes that feature vegetables and fish. But the economic evidence suggests otherwise – with a menu still hovering around €380, cutting out expensive animal proteins seems like a smart business move in a difficult economic period.

French chef alain ducasse

French celebrity chef Alain Ducasse

Ducasse may also be responding to global consumer trends. American culinary imports (i.e. McDonalds, processed food items, and food trucks) might extend to diet fads as well. France is a nation rich with strong culinary traditions that are even legally protected in some instances. But France is not immune to American dietary trends. The Dukan diet, promoted by French doctor Pierre Dukan in 2000, is remarkably similar to the Atkins diet that became popular in the US in 1972. As globalization brings the US and France closer together, French and American citizens are experiencing not only increasingly similar markets and product availability, but similar cultural, financial, and political experiences. Ultimately vegetarianism in France might be an adaptation of an American dietary, political, or environmental practice that mirrors French cultural experiences today – namely financial difficulties and increasing environmental and health awareness.

Vegetarianism in France may be on the rise, but that does not mean the end of meat. The French culinary tradition is still alive and well, and does not seem to be faltering in any alarming way. This new availability of vegetarian options seems to be just an increase in diversity of cuisines in France, and in a country with so many rich local vegetables and fruits, vegetarian cooking has a bright future in France that may serve to highlight the quality and variety of French vegetables. There is life beyond beef, and vegetarians in France are finding it with increasing ease.

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