Eating in France: The Crime of Veganism

Vegetable CurryPARIS, 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.

Image via iStockphoto

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    In the U.S., of course, it’s almost expected that at any party or dinner there will be a variety of allergies, preferences or limitations. I know a fair number of people with very serious allergies, the kinds that at best show immediate skin reactions and bodily discomfort and at worst send them to their epi pen or the hospital.
    But I also know people who delight in what they have decided are allergies. Certain people seem to have whatever the fashionable allergy is, and their allergies change depending on what’s trendy. They talk about the current “allergy” and how cutting X out of their diet has improved their health amazingly. (a year later it’s cutting Y out of the diet that’s so wonderful and they’re back to eating X). I have no patience for those people because they are part of the reason that allergies are sometimes not taken seriously. People with truly bad allergies sometimes are assumed to be malingerers because there are others who make it a badge of honor.
    I’ve found that people with the more serious allergies tend to be quieter about the whole thing. They find out the ingredients and then eat the food they’ve determined to be safe without commenting constantly on their allergy. And people with mild allergies that are real, simply make the necessary substitutions and go on with their lives.

  • Thanks for reading and commenting, Marti. I totally agree. I even find that this kind of “allergy/intolerance of the year” attitude gets in the way of understanding about other people’s issues. For example, I’ve had IBS since adolescence, and bread, pasta and such are the only things I can reliably eat without having a problem. But with celiac disease becoming all the rage, I can’t tell you how many people have started telling me they’ve seen the light and that all I need to do to feel better is to cut those things from my diet! I absolutely believe that celiac disease exists – I have a friend who suffers horrible symptoms because of it. And I know some people are intolerant to foods other people can eat without a problem. But I just hate that gluten has become this evil thing that EVERYONE needs to eliminate from their diet. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house! 🙂 I guess that’s one good thing about most allergies, intolerances, and disorders being ignored or unknown in France: no one here has ever told me to stop eating baguette! I’ll be writing more about digestive disorders and allergies in the next post in this series.

  • There are several things wrong this piece, I am afraid. The first is that you state that the parents did not feed their child a vegan diet and then you say they did. Children under five need a large amount of fat in order for their brains to grow. Parents who feed their children lowfat diets are responsible for brain damage. In this case it seems that the parents are responsible for the death by malnutrition.

    Then, in reading the article again and yet again I see that they were found guilty of their daughter’s death but then their son was taken away? This is so muddy. If parents are found guilty of a child’s death by malnutrition they should certainly expect the state to step in should they have another child, yes? And I think that the daughter’s death should have been written about alongside the outrage over the son being taken away. They are certainly linked.

    Having lived in France myself (and traveled there many many times) I know that the French don’t take such things as eating issues and learning issues as seriously as we do. But it helps to realize that France does not have as many products which are genetically modified as we do. France’s food is cleaner and therefore better. And they walk and walk which helps keep down their weight. They eat smaller portions. It is also quite possible that the children may have fewer learning disorders due to diet, isn’t it? That would be something to look into.

    There ARE some great vegetarian restaurants in Paris and lots of places serve amazing salads which are great if you are a vegetarian. Veganism serves a very small group and it is rather presumptuous to expect a society to cater to those needs, isn’t it? In the US unless you live in a large or very progressive society you are not going to find a lot of vegan options. If one’s diet is that stringent then one eats at home, as do other groups with strict dietary needs (Orthodox Jews, for example).

    This article tackles far too many things and makes a lot of pronouncements. It is hard to follow exactly what it is you are getting at. But is clear from research that many of our “allergies” are due to the GMO diet too many of us eat. That is a big American problem; not so large a problem in Europe where many countries have banned GMOs.

    PS I have had IBS for nearly 20 years and perhaps you need to find a better doc. The truth is, though, that IBS affects each person a little differently and each of us has to manage it our own way. There is NO medication that works, at least not now and not without huge side effects.

    And lastly, when I lived in Paris for two years I ate as I pleased, including a lot of bread, and was the thinnest and healthiest I have ever been with the least effort. It helped that the food was clean and I walked and walked. Clean food. Sensible parents. Those with severe dietary restrictions limit their eating out. Mixing up this pot is confusing.

    The French are very far from perfect but I am still unsure as to what it is you are trying to say.

  • I’m sorry you didn’t like the article, Lisa, but I wish you’d read more carefully: Joachim’s parents, named in the first sentence, are NOT the same people as Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, whose DAUGHTER died from malnourishment in 2011. As I explained in the article, Joachim was not being breastfed or following his mother’s vegan diet.

    As for the rest of what you’ve written, yes, a lot of French food is less genetically modified than food in the US, but that’s not the issue at hand; what’s being discussed here is people who have made legitimate dietary choices due to ethics, health, or other reasons – not whether or not French food in general is healthy. French milk may be perfectly fine, or even better in some way than American milk, but lactose intolerant people still can’t drink it.

    The same goes for restaurants: In my article, I wrote that traditional French restaurants do not usually cater to vegetarians. Of course there are restaurants here that do – but these are specialized niche places, not general eateries that most French people would think to go to, and they don’t exist everywhere. For example, when I visit friends in small villages, the local restaurants are not usually specialized to adapt to a vegetarian diet – or any other special dietary needs, for that matter.

    I think you were expecting to read something very different than what I’m tackling here. I’m not interested in talking about genetically modified food and its possible connections to issues like learning disabilities; as this article and the summary at the end explain, this will be a series about how dietary restrictions are viewed in France.

    I think you might be disappointed because you saw this article as “pro-vegan”. Although I personally am actually not a fan of the vegan diet, I do believe that people have a right to do what they wish, as long as they do it responsibly and without hurting others. And what’s happened to Joachim, a child who was not, by all reliable accounts, abused or malnourished,is shocking and frightening for any parent to think about.

    You also seem to think that I disagree with the healthiness of the average French person’s diet. That’s not the case. In fact, with a few exceptions, I eat pretty much the same things as my French husband does. I am also not, as your comment seems to imply, obese or unhealthy – and neither is anyone else who has a restricted diet, by default. Like many of them, I eat a variety of foods and take daily long walks – the only difference is, there are certain things, like getting the recommended 5 fruits and veggies a day (I usually average 3, except during IBS flare-ups), consuming most dairy products, or eating rich meals in a place where I wouldn’t easily be able to get to a toilet – that I can’t do.

    I’m glad that the time you lived in France seems to have been relatively peaceful for you in terms of your diet – which I’m assuming from your comment was pretty much the typical French diet. I’ve lived here for over a decade and continue to witness the nearly daily battles that those of us who don’t follow the French diet must face. Having a better doctor for my IBS would be great, and I’ve tried, but so far I have yet to meet him/her. And as you said, IBS is different for everyone, so the treatment and advice I might need could be different from what you got (and congratulations for finding the right treatment for you).

    One thing I do agree with you is in learning more about various issues like psychological and learning problems in the French population. That’s actually a part of my next article. I will tell you that I have some friends with children who have had a difficult time getting diagnoses of issues that would have much more easily been discovered and treated, like dyslexia, if they’d been in the States. The French aren’t necessarily healthier than us when it comes to these kinds of issues; they just tend to deny they exist. France is actually among the top consumers of anti-depressants in the world, for example.

    All this said, I love my adopted country; the prejudice against different dietary choices is just a fascinating and frustrating part of living here that I’m glad I get to explore. If you would like to write about genetically modified food, why not get in touch with the editor, Joanne, and see if she’d be interested?

  • You are absolutely right that I conflated the families. I should have noticed that. But it was confusing in the way you talked about one and then the other….

    It isn’t that I didn’t like the article. It is that the idea the veganism is a crime is unsupported. The title misleads. And I don’t assume your are pro-vegan and I certainly don’t assume you are obese or unealthy and nowhere do I make those assumptions. It is unclear why you think I do. I was merely commenting on the way French people eat and live and how it contributes to levels of healthiness which too much of America does not share.

    The main issue I have is that the article seems to try and do too many things and I still remain unconvinced about whatever argument it is you are making.

    I have no desire to write about GMOs. I do, however, think that the evidence supports their connection to food allergies and food issues. Americans who have been raised here and then go to live in Europe bring their lifetime of eating less clean food with them. And I remain confused re the daily battles you speak of. Eating out in restaurants may be difficult there but it is no less difficult here in the land of Applebees and fast food. Again, those with dietary concerns are better off eating at home most of the time. At least in France there are large supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables which are easily available. Shopping for food in Paris was far far easier and more satisfying than doing so in the American South for example. Here it involves Farmer’s Markets (in season) or trips to specialty groceries or health food shops. I am confused about complaints that restaurants don’t cater to all the dietary issues people have and unsure what that has to do with the prosecution of parents for the possible neglect of a child.

    As for the anti-depressant issue, I know that fact. I also know that that is a separate issue from the ones you discuss.

    There are many parents in the US who are prosecuted for refusing medical treatment for their children ; that issue is perhaps one akin to your examples of the families in the article. Once again I don’t think you make a case that veganism is a crime there.

  • Lisa, I’m not trying to make an argument, so much as exploring the way food issues are dealt with in France, as opposed to in the US, the country where most people who write for or visit this site, live or come from.

    In terms of the difference in difficulty between having a dietary issue in the US, vs having one in France, let me give you a few examples: 1. If someone goes to dinner in a restaurant or at someone’s home in the US, and tells them that unfortunately they can’t eat what’s being served because, say, they have celiac disease, that will be accepted. The host or restaurant may be secretly annoyed or not believe them, but in American culture, we either accept that these disorders exist, or at least respect those who say they have them enough not to push. If the same person says they have such an issue in France, they will likely be met with confusion. If they’re supposed to be eating at someone’s home, the person will likely be offended. There will most likely be questions asked and insistence that the person eat just a little be made. Here’s another example: Whatever people in the US think about IBS, I’ve never had anyone tell me anything about it being made up, etc. The other day, my French mother-in-law, hearing I’d been sick for a few days, said just that. These are just two of many, many examples. It’s the way France is. I want to explore and share information about these issues, but I have nothing to prove. There is no argument to what I’m writing, just observations about this culture and how it deals with dietary differences.

    As for the misleading title, it’s just a common journalism technique. If this piece were called “Veganism in France”, it would probably arouse a little less curiosity. Think about it: how many online article titles have you read that have no catchiness/exaggeration at all? However, the title isn’t completely untrue; in the case of Joachim’s family, we see that the French authorities can take away a child if they feel he or she is being fed a vegan diet and that this is leading to malnourishment or other issues. The case is exceptional because, as was stated, Joachim himself wasn’t being raised on a vegan diet; the mere fact that his mother (and not his father) is vegan, aroused enough suspicion for the doctor to call the equivalent of Child Protective Services.

    Anti-depressants do have a connection to what I’m writing about in this project overall, though not in the way you might think. I’ll be exploring that in my next article.

  • Leigh

    I think you’ve been plagiarized. Check out “10 Things About France That Shock First-Time Visitors” at whenonearth [dot] net. (Scroll down to “9. Sorry, Vegetarians.”)

    • Alysa Salzberg

      Hi Leigh, Thanks for the warning – I appreciate it! I’ve had a look at the link and the author links to this article, and the word order, etc, isn’t exactly the same, though it is teetering on the edge of plagiarism. I’m going to look into this a little more. Thank you so much again.

      • Leigh

        You’re welcome. Good luck. And thank you for the article. What an interesting peek into how another country views dietary needs and choices that we take for granted will be accepted here in the U.S.

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