Why is the French government trying to strangle its own wine industry?

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Ten years of living in France and writing about wine, and the one subject that just keeps on coming back is the Evin Law. The first reaction is usually laughter, an assumption that this must be some rib-tickling little joke. It’s then followed by a moment’s hesitation, a look of incomprehension. ‘Not really, no?’

It’s a conversation I must have had a dozen times over the past few weeks, and many more over the past decade, when speaking to friends in Hong Kong and Mainland China – or even America and England.

‘So advertising wine is illegal in France?’

Inside France, the government’s paternalistic attitude to wine advertising is fairly well accepted. Difficult, yes, debated regularly, sure, but part of the furniture. It’s only when you step outside that it seems ludicrous that the country that produces the world’s most sought-after wines should be so determined to squash any talk of them at home.

But last week has shown that the 500,000 wine professionals in France, and the 87,000 small producers (who are right now grappling with the 2013 harvest in 17 of France’s 22 regions) just might be fighting back more effectively than usual.

To back up a little, there have inevitably been regular railings from the wine industry since a law was first introduced in 1991 intended to regulate alcohol advertising. Known as the Evin Law, it ensures no advertising will target young people, and no alcohol sponsorship is allowed at cultural or sporting events – two cornerstones of the text that are widely accepted as sensible. But its grip has tightened over the past few years, encouraged by an increasingly powerful health lobby, to the point when wine producers, as French journalist Jacques Dupont memorably wrote a few years ago, are treated ‘like drug dealers’.

The latest salvo has been the submission of a new report aimed at reducing alcohol consumption, written by Professor Reynaud, an addiction specialist who has led many of the health lobby’s most virulent protests. It comes ahead of the yearly redrafting of the country’s health laws, and its small print has set off fireworks. ‘It feels like this government is slowly but surely pushing things forward to being more and more repressive,’ Bordeaux wine bureau president Bernard Farges said last week. ‘The wine industry needs to remain engaged and have a dialogue with the government, but in recent months they have repeatedly refused to meet with us. It just seems incredible that we export the image of our ‘art de vivre a la française’ around the world, our love of food and wine, while tearing down the industry that this image is based upon.’

We covered the main response to the new health proposals in Decanter at the end of September – when lobbying group Vin & Société launched a national campaign gathering signatures and mobilising the wine industry, entitled ‘Ce Qui Va Vraiment Saouler Les Francais’. But what has happened since is where it gets interesting.

The title of the campaign is a play on words. In English it translates as ‘what will really make the French drunk’, but refers to the double meaning of ‘saouler’, which can mean annoy or anger rather than get drunk. And it immediately had an effect, with 100,000 visitors to the website within 24 hours, and two significant victories within quick succession.

The Vin & Société campaign is specifically arguing against five measures that are contained within the new proposals, and that risk being written into law by the end of the year.

Firstly, a proposed ban on talking about wine on the internet and on social networks (when the Evin Law was first brought in, the internet was not mentioned, and it has been a strange grey area ever since). Secondly, a ban on portraying wine in a positive light in any media, whether print, television or radio. This sounds ridiculous, but several magazines have already fallen foul of this ruling in the past, and had to pay fines for articles that supposedly encouraged alcoholic consumption.

The third proposal first came into the public debate a few months ago – that wine should be taxed in the name of public health, bringing it into line with spirits and beer. The final two measures are centered around labeling of wine; that bottles should replace their current message about drinking in moderation with one that states more clearly ‘alcohol is dangerous’, and that each bottle should specifically carry warnings of how many units of alcohol it contains.

Vin & Société has claimed victory after just one week on two key points, suggesting that someone in government is listening to an industry that represents €7.8 billion in exports and €1 billion in government tax receipts.

What happened is this: the suggestion to ban talk on wine on the internet was quietly removed from the official text in the health proposals, just one day after the Vin & Société campaign launched. Asked why, the communications director would only say that its original appearance had been a mistake, mumbling something to do with ‘cut-and-pasting text’.

A few days later – and perhaps a little more surprisingly, as the online ban would have been impossible to carry out – Minister of Agriculture Stéphane le Foll explicitly stated that there would be no introduction of a wine tax in 2014 or 2015. He went even further on October 3, saying in a national radio interview that, ‘While I am minister of Agriculture, there will be no tax on wine’.

All in all, what started out as a pretty depressing picture of the French attitude to their greatest national asset has turned out to be rather more optimistic. As Joel Forgeau, president of Vin & Société, said, ‘The difficulty of talking about wine in the media remains a worrying subject – and this tightening up of messages on bottles and advertisements is still due to take effect. But to have achieved all this after one week shows what we can happen if we work together.’

For more information visit:
www.cequivavraimentsaoulerlesfrancais.fr

Columnist Introduction

Jane Anson is Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter, and has lived in the region since 2003. She is author of Bordeaux Legends, a history of the First Growth wines (October 2012 Editions de la Martiniere), the Bordeaux and Southwest France author of The Wine Opus and 1000 Great Wines That Won’t Cost A Fortune (both Dorling Kindersley, 2010 and 2011). Anson is contributing writer of the Michelin Green Guide to the Wine Regions of France (March 2010, Michelin Publications), and writes a monthly wine column for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where she lived from 1994 to 1997. Accredited wine teacher at the Bordeaux Ecole du Vin, with a Masters in publishing from University College London.

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