Monday, March 06, 2006


France and its people are justly famed throughout the world for putting 'solidarity' into practice on a daily basis. Almost every day the media here headline a movement or a mobilization to help out the disadvantaged, the unlucky, the downtrodden, or those simply overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of modern life. From the restos du cœur, where the poor and unemployed can find square meals for as long as necessary, to the SAMU Social, which picks up and takes care of street people during near-freezing nights, the French have devised lasting schemes to help many, many people. When a problem occurs, if the French can be solidaire, they will be.

The 'bird flu' has finally arrived here in France. A recurring feature of French history and culture is the interest (an obsession, some might assert) evidenced in food and nourishment … and this latest 'avian flu' crisis is very, very unwelcome indeed. French consumers in their millions have stopped purchasing poultry: depending on the source one consults (government, industry or ecologists), consumption of chickens, turkeys, geese, pheasant and other volailles has already dropped 25% to 50% from usual levels. This represents a serious economic setbackto those farmers who raise fowl, of course: some will undoubtedly have to close down completely and declare bankruptcy. In addition, some 46 countries, as of this writing, have simply banned imports of French poultry outright, which will affect the overall balance of payments – France is one of the world's major producers and exporters.

Messrs Chirac and de Villepin, both proponents of a suddenly renascent and somewhat surprising economic patriotism, given recent French history, have been photographed and filmed eating plates of delicious chicken at the annual Salon d'Agriculture in Paris. M de Villepin was even quoted on primetime news as saying "I've never eaten so much chicken in my life !". Other ministers and politicians, from left to right, have jumped on the bandwagon and called for the French to "express solidarity with the poultry farmers" by "purchasing and eating chickens and other tasty French birds". Government financial assistance to stricken farmers has quickly been allocated – millions upon millions of euros, with more in the pipeline if needed. On Saturday French bishops went on TV to urge parish priests to request their faithful to consume poultry – even though Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, began this past week: last Tuesday was Mardi Gras, after all.

So, is all this 'eat poultry' motivational discourse another example of renowned French solidarity ? Will the French go quickly back to consuming their poules au pot ? Well … yes and no. There are several problems, in Amerloque's humble view.

The majority of French people are believers in what they call 'the precautionary principle' (le principe de précaution). Simply stated, it means that when an activity or product raises a threat to human health or the world environment, precautionary measures should be taken - even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In short, "when in doubt, don't do it." This argument has been used in the past by ecologists (and certain media-savvy political figures, it must be said) to hold back the introduction and spread of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), for example, or to limit import of foreign nuclear waste for reprocessing in France.

Several town mayors last week invoked the 'precautionary principle' … and removed poultry – usually chicken - from elementary school and lycée menus, pleasing the parents but exposing themselves to the wrath of the farm lobbies and the pro-eating-poultry politicians. The consumer can now enter a supermarket … and see that shelves and refrigerated/freezer cabinets - heretofore containing fowl - now hold only various kinds of red meats and fish. Little poultry is available. When interviewed by the media, spokespeople for the hypermarkets state that they are "not stocking a lot of poultry" because consumers "just aren't purchasing".

"But", the alert reader might ask, "this 'bird flu' presents no risk to humans at all, scientifically speaking, if meat - and eggs - are fully cooked before eating. One shouldn't eat them raw or slightly cooked, or come into contact with sick birds, but otherwise, the poultry is safe." Well, yes … but the precautionary principle isn't the only thing French consumers are remembering when they decide to stop buying and eating poultry. They also recall that in the past twenty years or so, the government hasn't been forthcoming - or even quick off the mark - when assessing and addressing risks to public health.

For example, they remember the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster which took place in Russia on April 25/26, 1986; the cloud of released radioactivity immediately began moving west. On May 6th, the French Minister of Agriculture announced that "because of the distance separating it from Chernobyl, France was totally free of radiation from the accident". This was rephrased and repackaged by the media and entered the general public's collective memory as the catchphrase "The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl stopped at the French border". Only two years later, thanks to pressure from the press and public, was it revealed that the government had, er, misspoken, that after the Chernobyl incident Cesium 137 levels in parts of France were 30,000 becquerels per square meter, more than 200 times more than normal. The controversy as to how many cases of cancer were caused continues to this day.

The French also remember the contaminated blood scandal, one of the biggest during the Mitterrand years. In April, 1991 a report was published in the press which revealed that in 1985, the National Blood Transfusion Agency knowingly provided AIDS-contaminated blood for use in hospitals. The reason was simple business - the French test for AIDS was still being devised, and the French didn't want to use the costly American one already available. Over four thousand patients – mostly hemophiliacs - were contaminated, and quite a few died. Three government ministers (Fabius, Dufoix, and Hervé) were tried in a special court (Republican Court of Justice, with a panel of 15 judges) for manslaughter. After years of judicial maneuvering and procedural jousting, the first two were acquitted, while the third was found guilty - although no sentence was applied since "the events happened fifteen years ago." Other individuals, at lower levels in the chain of command, were found 'guilty' of various offenses, and one was sent to prison for four years. It became clear to the French people that some members of their duly-elected government and attendant Civil Service were unable to make some health-related decisions for the good of the people – especially since approximately 200,000 patients had become contaminated with Hepatitis C, as the blood had not been tested for that, either ! Minister Dufoix summed it up quite neatly for the average Frenchman, in words that have since become symbols of the tainted-blood scandal: responsables, mais pas coupables ("responsible, but not guilty").

The French people also recall the 'mad cow' contagion (la vache folle), which began in the 1980s and reached its peak in the period 1990-1995. The French discovered quite a bit about the health risks associated with the beef they eat, and what they found out wasn't always particularly palatable. First, the French public learned - with some horror - that their 'naturally' herbivorous cattle were being fed 'unnatural' bone meal (a high-protein substance obtained from the remnants of butchered animals, including cows and sheep). They further discovered that British health authorities had determined that cattle which were fed such meat and bone meal (containing 'prions', which are proteins) were becoming infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the 'mad cow' disease. Some people who ate contaminated beef were acquiring - and dying from - a new disease with similar neurological symptoms, subsequently called vCJD, or (new) variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The British banned the use of such feed meal … yet the French health authorities allowed its import directly from the UK and its use as French cattle feed for another two years ! Hardly reassuring to the French consumer, who was shrilly urged to "support beef farmers" and "consume beef" in "solidarity with the farmers". For years, the French people watched and marveled: when a case of BSE was discovered on a French farm, the entire herd was euthanized – a spectacular measure which did little to maintain the confidence of the French in their public health authorities, since the crying farmer or his spouse invariably appeared on the evening news sobbing that "it was unnecessary to kill them all". The French looked – and still look - askance at the numbers, too: up to the end of 2004, 183,972 cases of contaminated cows were found in the UK .. but only 951 cases in France. Given the size of French herds, eyebrows have been raised … especially because of the long incubation periods for prion diseases, which are typically measured in years or decades. As a result the full extent of the human vCJD outbreak may still not be fully known for quite a while.

Finally, closer to today, the French remember that just three years ago, in 2003, thousands upon thousands of people (14,802 according to an official report), mostly vulnerable senior citizens, died during an exceptional summer heatwave. For nine consecutive days the maximum temperatures exceeded 35° C (95° F). Up to August 4th, the number of deaths attributed to the heatwave was 300. Over 1200 died on August 8th alone; the peak was reached on August 12, with 2,200 dead on that one Wednesday. The government was slow on the uptake: on August 11, the then-Minister of Health, wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a croco logo, appeared on TV, at his vacation venue, and casually stated in what he thought was a reassuring voice that the government "had everything in hand". It didn't: as the temperatures began falling back to 'normal' on August 13, the government began holding emergency meetings … but for many it was too late: the damage had already been done. Several months later, when the extent of the disaster had become clear, the Minister said "We didn't know ! We did all we could !". He added that it was "an unpredictable, unprecedented natural catastrophe". He is now head of the French Red Cross.

Given these recent experiences, a goodly percent of the French people- and of other nationalities residing here - are not stupid or naive enough to believe whatever the government says about public health. They will take close, hard looks at whatever the authorities say or recommend In this case, it's not contaminated blood, or AIDS, or Hepatitis C, or mad cow, or heatwaves that are being considered: it's the 'bird flu' and the 'safety' of eating poultry. There might even be 'incontrovertible scientific evidence' as to the safety of the poultry, but that doesn't matter to many people: they have stopped consuming chickens and other poultry.

They are doing this not out of ignorance, or stupidity, or lack of education, or sheer bloody-mindedness: they are applying the 'precautionary principle'. It's as simple as that.

So … can one show solidarity with the French farmers and still apply the precautionary principle ? Amerloque has the answer. Yes !

Buy a chicken – and throw it away, without cooking and eating it. In that way both philosophies can be lived to the full !


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque


Blogger La Rêveuse said...

Very informative! Thanks, Alex.

I'll admit, today I walked right past the chicken, and headed for the beef and veal. I guess the 'étourdie' episode scared me a bit...

Now I just have to tell J he has to cook his eggs completely. He won't like that!

6:29 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Mrs B !

Hey, thanks for stopping by ! Glad you liked this fortnight's entry .. How are you feeling ? Better ?

L'Amerloque ( whose real name is not Alex, alas and alack. -smile- )

10:49 AM  
Blogger CoCo said...

I found myself laughing the whole way true going at least Ireland isn't the only fecked up place but Christ it isn't funny is it. It is bloody scary.

I've been a vegetarian for 12 years, over half my lifetime and I intend to stick with it.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hi l'Amerloque !!
The end of your post is very interesting ! Thanks for the idea... Btw, you are true when you say that French people don't really believe what the government says !! We are not that stupid, we know them now !! lol

10:31 AM  
Blogger Tongue in Cheek Antiques said...

well put, can life be trusted? I mean can goverments be trusted! what to do?
Do not eat meat.
nor chicken
do not breath.
do not pass go!
France won't let you collect $200 so no worry there!
eggs are in nearly everything?
modified corn..corn syrup or/and corn oil, is in nearly everything too, maybe even in your shampoo!
Wear a gas mask and sip wine through a straw and have a nice day!

1:06 AM  
Blogger jessica_savarese said...

Nice idea. Too bad, I just can't envision a French person buying a chicken and wasting it.

3:15 PM  

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