PARIS, France — Last May, French couple Céline and Julien brought their five-month-old son Joachim to the doctor after noticing he’d lost weight. Suspicious that the baby was a victim of abuse, the doctor reported the couple to the authorities. Soon, Joachim was taken from his parents’ custody.
This sounds like admirable vigilance on the doctor’s part, until you go deeper. According to reliable sources, there was no evidence of abuse or neglect (as cited here). The reason why Joachim was taken from his parents is that his mother (who wasn’t breastfeeding or having Joachim follow her diet) is a vegan.
This is, fortunately, an extreme reaction. But as someone whose eating habits are affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as well as certain moral choices, I can say from experience that in France, any diet that veers from the French norm is usually viewed with miscomprehension, mistrust, and even anger.
When it comes to food, France is rife with paradoxes. The most well-known is probably the seeming mystery of how the French can eat rich food, but have such a low obesity rate. A more insidious contrast is the fact that in one of the most medically advanced countries in the world, many food allergies, intolerances, and dietary regimens are barely recognized by doctors, and are generally met with a lack of understanding and acceptance by the average citizen. Whether you’re lactose intolerant, eating an ethically motivated diet, or suffering from relatively newly discovered conditions like IBS or celiac disease, you’ll likely have a hard time explaining to people why you can’t eat everything they do.
While allowances are usually made for religious practices, even relatively well-known dietary choices like vegetarianism are viewed with confusion and a lack of comprehension by French society in general. An estimated 5% of Americans are vegetarians. France isn’t far behind, with 2-3%. But whereas in most American restaurants you’ll find some kind of meat-free option, in a traditional restaurant in France, you’re extremely unlikely to find a vegetarian-friendly main course or even a side dish.
French culture doesn’t just celebrate food, it celebrates the idea of a meal. With the exception of an after-school indulgence for children, snacking is considered unhealthy. Three meals a day is the rule, and lunch and dinner ideally feature something from each food group. This is how it’s been in France for generations. Recently, when I made dinner for my French husband and visiting brother-in-law, the latter looked up from his plate of cavatelli pasta and broccoli and asked, “There’s no meat?” — a question echoed by my mother-in-law, when she called to say hello just after the meal.
It’s hard to be a vegetarian in France. But going vegan can get you into trouble with the law. The press and general population tend to view vegans as people who’ve made an inexplicable and unhealthy lifestyle choice. It’s often regarded the same way joining a cult would be.
In 2011, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou were found guilty of the death of their infant daughter. As staunch vegans, they’d decided to have their daughter follow the same diet as they followed. At 11 months of age, she was fed only breast milk, was nearly five pounds underweight, and had severe vitamin A and B12 deficiencies. Obviously, this was an exceptional case; as can be seen both in France and in other countries with vegan communities, most vegans know how to feed their children responsibly. But in a country where this dietary choice is already looked upon unfavorably, the scandal created even more prejudice towards vegans, especially those with families.
Joachim’s parents are fighting back, and, somewhat surprisingly, it seems like many French people agree that taking their son from them was an extreme and unnecessary measure. This gives me hope for the little boy and his devastated parents. The family has set up a Facebook page and website (you can read the English version here) where they’re sharing their story and asking people to sign a petition in their support.
My own experiences make me think that French society isn’t likely to change its overall views about diet anytime soon. Vegan mother and blogger Miss Brocoli recently wrote, “Some think that telling their doctor they’re vegan is a militant act; for our part, we’ve chosen to abstain. Our son doesn’t currently have a pediatrician, because I got fed up with listening to recommendations for diversifying his diet, and having to lie.”
While my situation is very different from Miss Brocoli and those in her community, I completely relate; going to a doctor with a problem related to my IBS usually ends up the same way — not with a dialogue, but with a diatribe or a deaf ear.
This is the first of a series of articles that will explore the challenges of eating differently in the culinary wonderland of France.
Alysa Salzberg is a writer and travel planner. She lives in Paris with a historical reenactor Frenchman and a cat who is, like herself, friendly but somewhat neurotic.