What’s it like being a vegan in France?

Starting a new life in France is exciting, but for some it’s also a daunting prospect, and even more so for vegans who are moving to a country dominated by carnivores. Only twenty-two miles separate France and the United Kingdom, but in culinary terms they are miles – or perhaps years – apart. Many people migrate expecting to find the same range of foodstuffs available in supermarkets and restaurants and are unpleasantly surprised to be on the receiving end of a Gallic shrug when they request an alternative to the rows and rows of pink ham in the chilled cabinet or question the lardons on their salad composée.

Many new arrivals get around the problem by bringing a huge stock of veggie essentials with them, and old hands make a trip back to the UK to fill up the car with vegan essentials. But sooner or later these will run out and then it’s time to bite the bullet and set off in search of local alternatives. Of course, at present (pre-Brexit) you can still place your weekly order with one of the large UK supermarkets and use a special shipping service to bring your goods to France, but with a premium of up to 20% plus vat added to the cost of the order, your favourite foods could end up costing a lot more than you’d bargained for. By the way, the problem is not confined to the British. I’ve seen social media posts from Swedish, Dutch and American vegans, all searching for their favourite cruelty-free products without success.

Maybe you’d prefer to shop local. Entering a French supermarket is a different experience to a trip to a local Sainsbury’s or Tesco Extra. Generally, the further out in the sticks you live and, let’s face it, that’s where most migrants head for, the smaller the supermarket and the more limited the range of goods on offer. Does anyone really need this many varieties of tinned duck intestines? And what do they do with all those bottled vegetables? The packaging is different, brightly coloured, with lots of different words, almost childish in its appearance. The sophisticated ‘Finest’ and ‘Taste the Difference’ type ranges are only just beginning to dip a toe in the water here. It can be frustrating trying to track down your favourite ingredients or finding that something you had come to rely on is simply never stocked.

There’s no doubt that the vegan market in France is growing and at a fairly rapid pace. In just the last two years I’ve noticed that the ‘bio aisle’ has doubled in size and there’s an increasing range of vegan and vegetarian products in the chilled cabinets. Whilst vegan cheese may still be as rare as hen’s teeth, most supermarkets of a reasonable size will stock tofu on the ambient shelves, vegan and/or veggie burgers, falafels and ‘soya steaks’ in the chilled cabinets plus at least a couple of lines of plant-based milk and yoghurt equivalents. Within the last two years Alpro has launched in France, Carrefour stock Quorn and Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy is available in E.Leclerc (check out the ‘latest news’ feed where I’ll post details of any recent finds and offers). There are also a growing number of French-based online vegan retailers.

Are there any French vegans?

France can be a tricky country for the vegan. But it’s not all bad. There’s no doubt that there is a growing meat-free movement, and it is growing quickly. With globalisation and the influence of the media, especially social media, the current first-world trend towards a vegan lifestyle has seen an effect in France. An increasing number of people are turning to a plant-based diet, especially amongst the younger, millennial crowd living in the larger cities. There are lots of French-speaking groups on social media that promote the meat-free lifestyle and animal rights in France. In fact, I’ve noticed that the French tend to go the whole hog (no pun intended) and adopt a vegan lifestyle immediately, rather than the slow migration from meat-eater to vegetarian and then to vegan that I’ve noticed elsewhere (and am guilty of myself). France seems to be about twenty years behind when it comes to meat-free eating. Perhaps the French are reluctant to lose their reputation for haute cuisine by diluting the repertoire of predominantly meat-based classics? However, vegetarian and vegan restaurants can be found in most of the larger cities, such as Lyon, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, and Paris has its own vegetarian arrondissement, the 10th.

Am I alone?

Many vegans, not just in France, report feelings of isolation and this is often discussed on social media. As an English migrant to France you are already in a minority and adding vegan into the mix heightens this. Many ‘expat’ gatherings focus around local restaurants serving those with nostalgia for back home – fish & chips or Sunday roast. The local markets are full of meat options, some of them still alive ☹ Fear not, there are French people who share your ideas. Yes, there are French vegetarians and vegans, although it’s difficult to pin down any precise numbers. Figures are hard to come by. The last government survey was conducted in the 1990s and this revealed that some 1.5% of the French population declared themselves to be either vegetarian or vegan. Neither the French statistics agency INSEE nor the European Union equivalent, Eurostat, have since researched the question. The European Vegetarian Union, EVU, states that there are around 30 million non-meat-eaters in the EU.

I recently came across a study of the vegetarian and vegan food market by the economic think-tank Xerfi. This 2018 study revealed a 24% increase in the market for vegetarian and vegan food, estimated to be worth 380m euros. It also found 2% of the population are now vegetarian and 0.5% vegan. These figures are higher than those I’d found previously, so it does look like things are changing for the good.

In a 2018 study, Xerfi found that 2% of the French population are now vegetarian and 0.5% vegan.

Since 2013 there has been a rapid rise in the number of people reporting they follow a vegan diet or lifestyle. It is almost becoming mainstream. It’s difficult to identify the cause of this sea change. Certainly, documentaries such as Cowspiracy and What the Health have made a significant impact on the younger generation, as has the influence of celebrities. In the UK there has been an increase of 360% over ten years, and the US has seen a rise in the number of vegans by 500% over a similar time scale. Yes, France is slow to change, behind many of its European neighbours. A commercial marketing study indicated that around 3% of the French population were either vegetarian or vegan, with a further 30% claiming to have reduced meat input or to follow a flexitarian diet. This compares to figures of over 10% in Germany and Sweden. But, slowly and surely, France is changing, with the younger generation and city-dwellers dragging it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. Some well-known Michelin starred chefs have gone on record producing vegan meals – although motivated by the challenge perhaps, rather than more ethical factors. Paris is said to have a ‘VeggieTown’ somewhere around tenth arrondissement, and a plant-based dairy producing eighty types of vegan fauxmage.

What do the French call vegans?

Well, I have seen vegan activists described as terrorists by some of their detractors, and it has to be said that the farming sector has massive political influence. But rather than focusing on the negative aspects of French vegan life let’s have a look at some definitions.

English-speaking non-meat eaters (what an awful description) generally describe themselves in two terms: either vegetarian (sometimes described as a diet rather than a lifestyle: no meat but still eat dairy, eggs and honey) or vegan (more of a lifestyle choice: eat or use nothing that exploits animals, living or dead). Indeed, the Vegan Society’s definition underlines veganism as a lifestyle rather than a dietary choice:

“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

The Vegan Society (2018)

Recently, a couple of other terms have been thrown into the mix: plant-based food/diet, which Wikipedia defines as: “a diet based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits, but with few or no animal products” and whole-foods plant-based, which is virtually the same  and follows the philosophy and advice of the likes of Colin T Campbell of The China Study and Dr Michel Greger of Nutrition.Org, two excellent resources. Personally, I’d be a little cautious about using the term ‘plant-based’ in France, because if you say that you eat ‘dietique legumes’ then there’s a risk that you’ll just be served legumes (vegetables) and nothing else. (There’s no guarantee that won’t happen anyway, of course.)

Végétarien or végétalien?

In France, the first thing to get your head around is the terminology. The French have words for vegetarian and vegan that are virtually identical: végétarien and végétalien. They don’t like to make it too easy. Remember the difference is just between the r and the l.

The French do understand the term ‘vegan’ – they add an ‘e’ to spell it vegane. So, I find it easiest just to describe myself as vegan(e) and, if necessary, to stress this by adding pas viande, pas poisson, pas lait, pas oeufs … and then watch their heads explode.

In French terms:

Végétarien : encompasses what we would understand to be vegetarian, thus the French vegetarian would not give up their love of produits du lait and fromage, considered by many to be daily essentials.

Végétalien : covers the vegan diet and lifestyle as most English-speakers know it; this is also called veganisme and vegane.

Vegane: vegan as we know it (most of the time)

Végétal: you’ll also come across the term végétal, which you’d think was an alternative for vegan, but some products labelled ‘végétal’ have been found to contain eggs and/or milk so it’s worth being cautious and checking the ingredients label, which leads nicely to Vegan labelling.