The background of the governmental decrees
By David Olivier, spokesperson of the ICDV.
Many find it difficult to believe the news about vegetarianism having been banned in French schools. I think that it is important in this respect to give some background, because in the French context such a measure is really not that surprising. In a way, the recent decrees, by going so far as outlawing vegetarianism for a part of the population, cross a symbolic line, but are still just one step more in a same direction.
But first two points. One is that there is no law in France that explicitly states: "it is illegal for schoolchildren to be vegetarians". The decrees do not even mention vegetarianism; to acknowledge our existence would be to bestow too great an honour on us! No, they don't mention vegetarianism, they just make serving meat mandatory. Brigitte Gothière of the French animal rights organization L214 herself found it difficult to believe that the decrees really meant what they said; she phoned the French Ministry (of Agriculture, I think), who confirmed that yes, the decrees do imply that a city such as Strasbourg, which currently offers a vegetarian option in its schools, must cease to do so.
The second point is that the ICDV press release has been signed by over thirty French organizations. These are real organizations, some small and some large; the list, with their websites, can be found on the ICDV website. The French vegetarian society (AVF - Association Végétarienne de France), the most active French animal rights association (L214) and the European Vegetarian Union itself have published their own press releases to the same effect. Links to them are also on the ICDV website.
The AVF press release in particular dates back to Aug. 1, two months before the decrees; it states:
"Profitant du calme estival, le gouvernement français est sur le point de publier un nouveau décret qui conduirait à contraindre les consommateurs français à consommer des produits d'origine animale dans la restauration collective (...)"
Translation: "Taking advantage of the Summer lull, the French government is set to publish a new decree that would imply forcing French consumers to consume animal products in collective catering (...)"
The fact is that these October 2 decrees had been announced over a year ago, in a July 27, 2010 law. It's just that no one in the vegetarian and animal rights movement had payed attention before last May.
"Les gestionnaires, publics et privés, des services de restauration scolaire et universitaire ainsi que des services de restauration des établissements d'accueil des enfants de moins de six ans, des établissements de santé, des établissements sociaux et médico-sociaux et des établissements pénitentiaires sont tenus de respecter des règles, déterminées par décret, relatives à la qualité nutritionnelle des repas qu'ils proposent".
Translation: "The managers, whether public or private, of school and university catering services, of catering services of institutions for children under six, of health institutions, of social and medical-social institutions and of prisons are under the obligation to respect the rules, that will be determined by decree, concerning the nutritional qualities of the meals that they propose".
This means that from kindergarten to retirement homes, a very large part of all meals served by catering services will have to obey those rules.
Now what are those rules? The law says that they were to be determined by decrees, and the October 2 decrees are the first of these; similar decrees will logically follow concerning universities, etc. During the parliamentary debates leading to the adoption of the law, the French Health minister answered a question from a member of parliament concerning the possibility of organizing periodic vegetarian meals in school catering services. The minister responded: "These rules, which are currently being developed, will carry over the recommendations in matter of nutrition of the Group of Study of the Markets of Catering GEMRCN (...). As long as the consumption standards will have been globally respected, the managers of school catering services will have the possibility of organizing thematic meals, among them vegetarian meals, eventually."
This is completely in agreement with the contents of the October 2 decree: the intention is to allow vegetarian meals - but not vegan ones - every once in a while; but not to allow them to be served every day. In fact, the consumption standards that the minister mentioned - those of the GEMRCN - specified that meat an fish were to be served regularly, at least 8 times over a series of 20 meals.
Now what is this GEMRCN? It is actually an organization of the Ministry of Finances, that has existed for over ten years now. It issued in 2007, and updated in July 2011, a "recommendation concerning nutrition" that details what was at that time only a recommendation concerning all catering services. The July 2011 version can be found here.
The GEMRCN recommendations is a lengthy document, that goes into much detail concerning all age groups and various situations. It doesn't mention vegetarianism, but just like the current decrees, simply makes it impossible. Meat and fish are not mandatory at every meal served, but it is mandatory to serve meat and fish at a certain minimum frequency; and in those cases where the patrons have some choice of their courses, it must be made impossible to make choices that would imply falling out of the standards set for those frequencies. This implies that it must be made impossible to avoid animal flesh, apart from the fact that one can usually (not always for children) just leave the flesh on the side of the plate. Furthermore, dairy products are mandatory for each and every meal served.
The fact is that the contents of the GEMRCN document are not surprising. For years there has been a public policy regarding nutrition that is clearly anti-vegetarian. I quote from the complaint that the ICDV lodged with the UN authorities last April (letter in English here):
"The stance of the French public health authorities is reflected through the PNNS (Plan National Nutrition Santé – National Nutrition and Health Plan), which defines the government’s official ‘nutritional policy.’ A goal of this plan is to ‘make simple, clear and comprehensive information available’ to the general public, in particular via the website mangerbouger.fr a reference to which is legally mandatory on all advertisements for food products. Furthermore, the PNNS serves as a point of reference for professional medical bodies in the health service, as well as social and family services and for institutions serving food to the public (school canteens etc.). As appears from the attached documents, taken from mangerbouger.fr website, the French health authorities emphasize page after page the ‘need’ to consume meat and fish. The messages regarding vegetarian and vegan diets are as a whole very alarmist, outlining a risk of multiple nutritional deficiencies, (2) whilst providing practically no information on how such deficiencies might be avoided. This is in spite of the fact that the international medical community and medical public authorities of other countries recognise that it is quite possible to receive adequate nutrition at any age without consuming any animal products.
2. For example: ‘And veganism? ... Be aware that this type of diet makes it very difficult to cover one’s needs in essential amino acids, iron, calcium and certain vitamins. To follow a vegan diet over the long term is to put one’s health at risk, particularly in the case of children.’ (Brochure titled “La santé vient en mangeant. Le guide alimentaire pour tous” – “Our Health Depends on What We Eat: The Food Guide for Everyone”, p. 94)."
Hence it was already almost official that a vegan diet was a form of mistreatment. In fact, there have been multiple cases of vegan parents having problems with the social services.
Furthermore, doctors in France are very ignorant about nutrition, and simply take the official guidelines word for it: veganism, and vegetarianism generally, are dangerous diets.
The French authorities have for many years (both under left-wing and right-wing governments) staunchly defended what they define as the French "national identity", which is meant to include all elements of its cuisine and particularly animal ingredients. They even going as far as elevating foie gras to an official element of French culture, in a law that was passed unanimously in French parliament (see here for instance some comments in English). See Stopgavage for more information (in French). The hostility towards animal rights or welfare issues is clear in this comment by a member of parliament: "The hellish machine of animal welfare is coming and menaces to undo all our traditions. We must oppose it!" (quoted on the Stopgavage page).
Last, I must point out that this is the situation in France regarding the French government, the French political class, and most of the French "authoritative" public discourse (in the major newspapers and so on). This doesn't mean that the French public is unanimously hostile towards vegetarianism and animal rights. All polls, and a series of books and articles recently published, seem to indicate a growing interest in these issues. It may well be that that is precisely the reason for these recent laws and decrees: to try to stifle this growing movement outright, by plainly banning vegetarianism.
So please do not refrain from French-bashing, as long as you make it clear that you are bashing the French government, political class, and a certain form of French culture and of "identité nationale"; and not the French people, who are currently awakening to the issues of animal rights and vegetarianism.