“Le binge drinking” is on the rise in France, despite less drinking overall

Getting le smashed.
Getting le smashed.
Image: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
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In France, imbibing six or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting is officially known as an alcoolisation ponctuelle importante—”serious intoxication episode.” Perhaps because of the term’s blandness, the French also use the English expression “binge drinking,” tacking on the definite article “le.”

In fact, le binge drinking appears in the glossary of a recent report (pdf, in French) by the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction, which also shows that the behavior itself has become much more prevalent among young adults.

From 2003 to 2011, the number of French between the ages of 18 and 25 who reported binge drinking within the past month grew by 57%; the number of 17-year-olds, by 14%. France raised the legal drinking age from 16 to 18 in 2009.

What’s surprising about the trend, aside from the fact that the French have a reputation for drinking in moderation, is that alcohol consumption in the country as a whole has been dropping steadily since the early 1960s. Soft drinks and fruit juice have come to replace wine as the beverage of choice at the dinner table; in 1980, wine was served at about half of all meals, but in 2010, it only appeared at one out of four.

According to Le Monde, the reason is that there has been a shift in class, both among the wine of the country and its people. As the economy grew in the late 20th century, the number of blue-collar workers, who tend to be heavier drinkers, diminished. Meanwhile, wine went from being a quotidien commodity to a gourmet product: 65% of French wine was simple table wine in 1979, but that number dropped to 11% in 2005. It’s now a more expensive and less frequent indulgence.

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So why the recent spate of le binging? A popular, if dubious, interpretation among the French is that their kids picked up the habit from Brits. In a 2011 story in the Guardian, the writer interviews a waiter in Paris bemoaning drunken adolescent boisterousness:

“The French kids are the worst because they want to be Anglo-Saxons,” said Jean-Christophe, a waiter, shaking his head in front of the Saint Michel archangel fountain, which dominates the square and is currently full of white bath foam and at least one mooning reveller.