British drinking culture: Are we really any worse than the French?

Does France have a booze problem?

I’m currently on my year abroad working as a British Council English Assistant just outside of Rennes, France. What struck me in my first few weeks of teaching at my lycée (French secondary school catering for pupils aged 14 -18) was that the French have interesting stereotypes which they believe distinguish themselves from young English people. Above all, I have been repeatedly questioned about our drinking culture. In fact, one teacher requested that I do an entire lesson on binge drinking in England! I certainly acknowledge that there is a heavy drinking culture in England; a shocking £217m a year is spent on alcohol treatment (calculated by the Centre for Public Health in 2006) and in fact Durham was found to have the second highest rate of binge drinkers (27.6% compared to the national average of 18%) after our neighbouring Newcastle. However, is it really fair to single out English drinking habits from those across the Channel? As the BBC itself recognised last month, binge drinking, a phenomenon more commonly associated with Britain, has indeed hit France.

Before spending a long period of time in France, I had assumed that, as with many other European countries, the French attitude to drinking would be more ‘casual’ than ours. Of course France is famous for its production of great wines, champagne and, here in Brittany, cider. However, I had thought that heavy consumption of alcohol was generally reserved for special occasions with the French preferring to sip a couple of glasses of wine at meal times rather than engaging in binge-drinking sessions (les beuveries). In fact, its local production merely makes alcohol more accessible to all due to far lower prices in supermarkets and bars. Furthermore, when it comes to bars, it is usually cheaper to buy a glass of wine or half a pint of beer or cider than it is to buy a soft drink. It is not therefore surprising that the French consume a large volume of alcohol.

Aside from being more affordable, there is another factor which makes alcohol far more accessible here than in England. Despite having the same legal drinking age of 18 here, shopkeepers and bar tenders are reluctant to check your date of birth. Indeed, since my arrival a month and a half ago, I have never been asked to show my ID when purchasing alcohol; nor have any of my peers, some of whom would certainly cause hesitation in England.

My first night out in Rennes led me to conclude that uni students’ attitude to alcohol is perhaps not so different here. I’m with some English and American friends on Rue Saint Michel, colloquially known as Rue de Soif (“Thirst Street”) due its succession of tightly-packed bars. Just off St Anne’s Square, the social hub of the University City, Rue de Soif attracts all the young Rennais, especially on a Thursday night, their big student night out. Within an hour of sitting outside a bar, the street is heaving, so much so that it takes us ten minutes, dodging glass bottles being smashed to the floor and French students who are blind drunk, to walk to the next bar just a few metres away. I had never seen anything quite like this. All the girls in our group felt pretty uncomfortable, with French boys persistently harassing us despite now struggling to form coherent sentences.

Following several similarly chaotic nights out, all of which require huge clean-up operations the following morning, I was not surprised to read in 20 minutes (a daily free newspaper) that Breton youngsters have been dubbed champions de l’ivresse (“heavy drinking champions”) with the highest rate of drinking among its teenagers. Indeed such a reputation has caused the Rennes town council to implement several measures in an attempt to deter heavy drinking and the behaviour it entails. For example, bars are under pressure to shut early, there is a special police force out at night to pick up disorderly drunks, and the council funds events such as concerts every Thursday night to provide an alcohol-free alternative. Finally, shops are prohibited from selling alcohol after 10pm, hence the huge rush to buy pre-lash drinks in the early evening. Indeed, it seems that French teenagers have adopted our love of pre-drinking for its financial benefits. Just like us, French youngsters play drinking games as a means of reaching high levels of inebriation before going out.

The consequences are far from pleasant and residents are struggling to put up with the weekly unrest which ensues. It is not just a case of noise pollution and indecent exposure; as I myself witnessed, pavements become strewn with broken glass bottles and bars are forced to board up their windows with wooden planks to avoid being smashed up. An indication of unruly it has been on Rue de Soif, water cannons had to be employed to disperse crowds in 2004.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a big night out as much as the next student, and have certainly indulged in my fair share in both Durham and Rennes; my point is a slight resentment at the way in which the French have avoided the international tag of binge drinkers, so synonymous with English youths, having now experienced French drinking first hand. What should be acknowledged, however, is that the French are less willing to tolerate such drunken and disorderly behaviour, hence the constant introduction of new deterrent measures. Indeed the latest is a free psychology appointment for any 16–24-year-old admitted to hospital for an alcohol-related illness. I nonetheless remain slightly pessimistic about the extent to which the French authorities will be able to suppress this recent faux pas.

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