WHEN France’s vegetarian society, Association Végétarienne de France (AVF), sent out a press release stating Nicolas Sarkozy had gone végétalien (vegan) it turned out to be an April Fool.
However, with numbers of vegetarians and vegans increasing in France and the president known for his health-conscious ways, it was almost believable.
Despite the growing numbers of vegetarians (no meat) and vegans (also no animal by-products) in France – AVF say there are around a million and 100,000 respectively – there is reluctance to voice anti-meat eating opinions and there are concerns over végéphobie.
It is for just this reason that David Olivier founded Veggie Pride in 2001, which is being held in Lyon on May 15 this year.
Over the last few years numbers have doubled from 300 to 600 participants last time.
“It’s still an area where people don’t dare to come out of the closet, to be clear about refusing to eat animals,” said Mr Olivier.
He believes that health and environmental issues are important but that ethical concerns over animal slaughter are paramount.
AVF focuses its efforts on trying to make French people understand vegetarianism – a challenge on limited funds and with only 1,000 members. Spokeswoman Alice Rallier said French people were prisoners of their culture.
“At school, pupils learn that ‘labourage et pâturage sont les deux mamelles de la France’ [ploughing and animal grazing are France’s two breasts – ie. what keeps France alive] and it’s very difficult to make them see things differently.”
Not only is this belief drummed in during formative years but, according to Rallier, farmers and hunters have great political influence.
Veggie Pride organisers hope they can help voices opposed to animal slaughter be heard.
“The political parties never speak of it here,” said Mr Olivier. “In Europe, France is one of the most reactionary powers concerning animals, always fighting against any measures for more floor space for hens and so on.”
Despite stirrings of opposition to the practice of force-feeding poultry for foie gras (44% of French said they would support a ban in a recent independent survey – though only 13% said they refused to eat it), a law was passed declaring it part of France’s cultural heritage.
An anti-veal movement is non-existent in France whereas campaigns are active in the UK and the USA.
However French activists, inspired by the theories of French anti-meat campaigner Antoine Comiti, came up with the idea of a World Day for the Abolition of Meat last year (www.nomore meat.org). It took off internationally via the internet, with events in Italy and Switzerland as well as France. The second was in January this year, in 12 countries including Britain, Germany, South Africa and the USA. French organisers included the groups L214 and Dignité Animale.
According to Mr Olivier, while research shows a plant-based diet can be one of the healthiest, there is no medical advice or support available to those wanting to go vegan in France.
One goal of Veggie Pride is to encourage people to talk about the bond they form with their animals. Mr Olivier said a colleague told him losing her dog was like losing a child.
“People have a close relationship with animals, but saying that – or a political party saying issues affecting animals are as important as those affecting humans – is almost unheard of in public debate.”
As understanding for veganism increases into the public sphere, perhaps a future press release announcing a végétalien president will not be just an April fool. After all, with Sarkozy declining the wine culture of France and his favourite food being chocolate instead of tête de veau (veal’s head) like former president Jacques Chirac, it could happen. Mr Olivier believes that at this point it is not possible - like having a black president in the United States in the 1950s. “However when enough people start understanding that eating meat is not the right thing to do, then the president will be vegetarian,” he said.
Veggie Pride is at 14.00 on May 15 in the centre of Lyon. For details see www.veggiepride.org (Site in English).the Lot.