French Culture

Pierre Mendès France and the politics of milk

School milk – header image

The philosopher Roland Barthes believed that wine was a ‘totemic drink’ in France. In Mythologies (1957), he claimed that ‘wine is seen by the French as something that belongs to them, as much as their three hundred and sixty types of cheese’. Indeed, Barthes considered wine so integral to French culture that he thought anyone who spurned it would never truly be accepted by society.

Barthes’ last claim may seem hyperbolic, but it reflects the prevalent mood in mid-century France. Although wine and other alcoholic drinks had long been associated with Gallic culture, it was not until the state began subsidising vineyards and distilleries during the Depression that alcohol developed a hold on society itself. Subsidisation kept the alcohol industry secure and profitable during economic uncertainty and by the 1950s it employed one fifth of French workers. With so many lives linked to its production (and a government keen to promote consumption to cover subsidy costs) alcohol rapidly became a vital component of French society.

However, alcohol’s inflated socio-cultural importance made it hard for governments to end subsidisation. This became problematic in the early 1950s when supply (despite the best efforts of French drinkers) overtook demand, resulting in an annual unsold excess of 37 million gallons. The government thus faced a dilemma: although the alcohol industry was a huge drain on state finances, it had become so deeply embedded in society that withdrawing support would incur a backlash.

To Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France (in office June 1954 – February 1955), continuing to subsidise the bloated alcohol industry was ‘economic madness’. Not only were alcohol production subsidies a waste of money, he argued, but the state’s alcohol consumption drive was cultivating an endemic lethargy among workers. To save money and create a healthy, productive workforce, Mendès France proposed a radical strategy to break the bond between French society and alcohol. At the heart of this plan lay the drink Barthes called the ‘anti-wine’: milk.

Mendès France began by pushing beet sugar producers to sell their crop to sugar refineries, rather than alcohol distilleries. To guarantee a market for beet farmers, the prime minister decreed that schoolchildren, soldiers and labourers would be provided with state-funded sugared milk. Mendès France even led the milk-drinking crusade himself, sipping it in front of cameras at formal events.

Although he expected resistance from a country so wedded to alcohol, Mendès France could not have predicted the violence of the response. The prime minister’s plan invoked the wrath of what writer Michel Dion calls la France profonde, or ‘Deep France’ – rural provinces both politically and psychologically removed from the metropolitan centre. In Deep France, the milk campaign was seen as an attack on traditional French culture by an out-of-touch urban elite.

Protests were widespread and often tinged with antisemitism. To rural conservatives, Mendès France’s Sephardic heritage made him culturally foreign and his hostility towards the French alcohol industry was thus interpreted as an assault on France itself. As populist leader Pierre Poujade exclaimed:

If you had a single drop of Gallic blood in your veins, you would never … let yourself to be served a glass of milk at an international summit! That would be a slap in the face, M. Mendès, for all Frenchmen – and not just the drunk ones!

Poujade was not alone in questioning Mendès France’s Frenchness. The extreme right, which already considered Mendès France a traitor for ending colonial rule in Indochina, saw the milk campaign as another Jewish plot to undermine French national prestige. To future Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Mendès France’s actions were so opposed to the cultural values of France that they made him feel a ‘patriotic, almost physical repulsion’ towards the PM.

The vitriol directed at Mendès France demonstrates the cultural symbolism attached to ‘totemic’ objects. To provincials, alcohol was an integral part of daily life and any perceived threat to it (especially from a cultural ‘foreigner’) had to be resisted. To the state, it was financially and culturally harmful and needed to be removed from society. Mendès France’s programme exposed these differing cultural mindsets of province and centre, triggering a conflict between them.

The reaction to Mendès France’s milk campaign may seem absurd today, but it cannot be dismissed as anecdotal. ‘Totemic’ objects feature throughout modern cultural conflicts in France, particularly in those concerning Islam and French society. In 2010, a group of Parisians organised a sausage and aperitif-based street party in protest against the perceived ‘Islamification’ of their district, while in 2015 several small-town schools stopped serving an alternative to pork at lunchtime, thereby forcing Muslim students to conform to French cultural standards.

Although these acts targeted Muslims, they nonetheless represent a certain division between traditionalist province and progressive centre that was exposed by Mendès France. To French conservatives, Islamic immigration is a ‘problem’ caused by the state’s liberal immigration policy. Echoing Poujade and Le Pen, they argue that an out-of-touch government is fuelling the destruction of society by granting citizenship to those who have no assimilated into French culture. The response is symbolic protest: the performative consumption of ‘totemic’ items to reassert the cultural and political power of traditional France.

These cases (among countless others) show that the province-centre divide in France is far from healed. Whenever it feels threatened by external power, conservative society will always react with symbolic protest. This phenomenon is not limited to France. In the UK, much of the Euroscepticism that contributed to Brexit was based on symbolic politics. Tabloids in particular generated a highly symbolised narrative of illegitimate ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ trying to inflict ‘foreign’ laws on British society (who can forget the great myth of the EU wanting to ban curved bananas?).

Cultural conflict between province and centre is a universal problem that appears to be growing increasingly frequent. Politicians must therefore tread carefully when dealing with matters of provincial tradition. Failure to do so may quickly lead to protest and, as Mendès France discovered, a widespread belief in the total illegitimacy of the state.

Sam Young is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, where he is writing a dissertation on the 1965 French presidential election. He has a BA Joint Hons. in French & History from the University of Nottingham and is beginning a PhD in Franco-Belgian urban history at Cardiff University this October. Find him on Twitter @Samyoung102

Further reading

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (Paris, 1957)

Bohling, Joseph, ‘The Mendès France Milk Regime: Alcoholism as a Problem of Agricultural Subsidies, 1954–1955’, French Politics, Culture & Society 32.3 (2014), pp. 97-120

De Taar, Francis, The French Radical Party: from Herriot to Mendès-France (London, 1961)

Dion, Michel, La France profonde (Paris, 1988)

 Howard, Sarah, ‘Selling wine to the French: official attempts to increase French wine consumption, 1931-1936’, Food & Foodways 12.4 (2004), pp. 197-224

Joxe, Pierre, ‘Pourquoi Mendès France ?’, Après-demain 17.1 (2011), pp. 46-48

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Four years later, what have we learned from the Charlie Hebdo Attack?


In April 1961, a reader named Victor de Blancpré sent a letter to François Cavanna, founder and editor-in-chief of Hara Kiri magazine and Charlie Hebdo, saying: ‘Never have I read such a heap of insanity and foolishness. It’s disgraceful! I’m suffocated with indignation. You disgraced the French press. You must be thinking you are very smart? Let me tell you that you are actually stupid and mean’. [1]

Cavanna reported that he loved the reader’s distaste for the magazine’s vulgar and puerile humour so much that he decided to appropriate it. He borrowed the expression bête et méchant (stupid and mean) to change the title from Hara Kiri: journal satirique, to Hara Kiri: journal bête et méchant. The term bête et méchant was coined to label Hara Kiri’s satirical ethos and its brand of humour, and the slogan continued when Cavanna launched Charlie Hebdo in 1970.

The bête et méchant humour, a trademark of Charlie Hebdo, is impossible to define. It has elements of satire but it is not unequivocally satirical. It displays an anarchic spirit but is not anarchist. It attacks the Catholic Church but anticlericalism cannot be considered its self-proclaimed identity. There is no doubt that Cavanna distilled the loathing he felt for the Catholic Church, and the Pope in particular, into many of his editorials, but nowhere in 1970s’ Charlie Hebdo could an attack on Islam or Muslims be found.

Through deliberate strategies of inflation and misrepresentation, Cavanna established a doctrine that intentionally singled out and exposed idiocy, imbecility, and malice in people. It deliberately celebrated existing idiocy and nastiness by adding more of its own, going farther to ‘the point of absurdity, to the point of odiousness, to the point of grandiloquence’, in Cavanna’s words.

One thing is for sure; a satirist will very often propagandize for his own way of writing satire.  He can define it in moral terms, or in terms of wit, humour, self-derision, iconoclasm or the carnival spirit. Frankly, the bête et méchant humour is so absurd that it’s hard to determine whether it has any critical value. If it succeeded at anything, it would be that it shocked and repulsed, while running the risk of reinforcing the existing and widespread discriminatory behaviour it satirised.

Charlie Hebdo comes out of a dizzying array of forms of humour: satire, irony, farce, hyperbole, darkness and morbidity. It was no coincidence that Hara Kiri’s first three issues in 1960 deployed the term “journal satirique” as a subheading. By so doing, the magazine classed itself within the borders of the satirical tradition, while soon afterwards adopting “journal bête et méchant” as a label that does not resemble or refer to anything recognizable. Cavanna’s prescribed identity for his paper, in the 1970s, was intentionally unclear, due to the fact that it was a new enterprise still growing and trying to position itself within the press market. This fluidity was also due to a desire to identify with having an overlap of, or indefinite lines between humour and satire, moving freely between the two genres. Like a catch-all category of press, the publication called itself something that did not place a label on its identity.

However, when Philippe Val, with a hope of starting his own newspaper that would voice his interests, decided, along with several ex-Charlie Hebdo contributors, to resurrect Charlie Hebdo in 1992 after a ten-year hiatus, what ensued was critical in shaping the future of Charlie Hebdo as we know it today. Under Val, Charlie Hebdo became positioned at the centre of a conflicted political debate dominated by dichotomies of freedom of speech versus hate speech, anti-islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Such dichotomies cannot contain the complexity of political satire. The magazine became just too serious.

Over the past thirty years Charlie Hebdo, a large fraction of mainstream media, and a certain ‘intellectual class’ shifted public attention to new social questions, with free speech, laïcité [state secularism], and French national identity at the forefront.

A social and political crisis that became more visible in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was preceded by a certain flow of anti-Islam rhetoric which has come to characterize French public life. This is exemplified by Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (January 20015) as well as the success of Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014) which laments the failed project of integration of Muslims into the French society, or his previous essay Mélancolie Française (2010). When interviewed by the Corriere della Sera, Zemmour was quoted as saying that France should consider deporting Muslims. The abundance of the best-selling literary works which treat the question of Islam in France tells us that Charlie Hebdo once again finds itself preaching to the choir.

The consensus around the importance of protecting certain Republican values has shaped the debate in the 2017 elections. One look at the editorial of Gérard Biard, editor in chief, in the Charlie Hebdo’s survivors’ issue published on 14 January 2015, showcases the fixation on questions of republican norms and values almost exclusively focusing on freedom of speech and laïcité (rather than égalité and fraternité):

“We will hope that starting from 7 January 2015; the firm defense of laïcité will be granted for everyone…Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality; yes, international geopolitics is a succession of manœuvers and dirty tricks; yes, the social condition of what we call ‘communities of Muslim origins’, in France is profoundly unjust; yes, racism and discriminations should be fought relentlessly. Fortunately, there exist several tools to try and resolve these serious problems, but they are all inoperable if one thing is missing: laïcité.” [2]

Laïcité, from Charlie’s perspective is thus the backbone of the Republic, and is the solution to the social fracture. The French elite’s obsession with Islam has demonstrates how, historically, the ruling classes have always prioritized the language of freedom over equality. As one article put it: “Many Muslims in France feel marginalised because of their low economic status. Yet, the question of their social integration returns continually to the issue of secularism and whether or not this secularism, the benchmark of French values, is compatible with Islam.” It is thus clear that talking about laïcité when the conflict with the Roman Catholic Church is long gone in France means that the object of debate has changed to: how best could the republic manage multiculturalism? [3]


[1] Some argue that the article was not sent from a reader but was actually written by Cavanna himself. The magazine did publish a few ‘fake’ but satirical readers’ letters over the years.

[2] My translation

[3] To read more on this topic, Abi Taylor argues that: ‘The [French] state invokes universalism and secularism to reserve the right not simply to determine who can become a member of French society, but more generally to maintain a stronghold on symbolising Frenchness. And so the state defends the republic’s indivisibility, unity and social and moral order – no more so than when the nation perceives itself plagued by insecurity.’

Imen Neffati is a PhD researcher at the History Department University of Sheffield researching the history of the satirical press in France from the 1960s to the present with a special focus on Charlie Hebdo, questions of free speech, and the right to offend.

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