French wine producers will have lived with the 1991 Loi Evin (a law framed for 'the struggle against tobacco addiction and alcoholism') for a quarter of a century next January, but it remains a source of contention. It’s been back in the headlines recently. Why?

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The French government, having floundered for several years following François Hollande’s election in May 2012, has found something resembling a sense of purpose under Hollande’s second Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and especially following the appointment of the 36-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a former civil servant and investment banker, as finance minister in August 2014. Can Valls and Macron resolve the country’s legendary inability to enact the kind of reforms undertaken by almost all of its European partners? They’re making a small start.

The French legislative tradition is for portmanteau laws which forever bear the name of the politician who drove them into being (the Loi Evin, for example, was named after Health Minister Claude Evin). The Loi Macron, which is undergoing legislative scrutiny at the moment, is a hefty wodge of economic reforms which would look timid almost anywhere else, but which in France seem daringly radical (like, wow, allowing bus operators to create inter-urban routes to compete with France’s national rail network, or allowing shops to open in the evenings or on Sundays in areas frequented by tourists). This is a country, remember, where the government still tells shop owners when they can and can’t run promotional winter and summer sales.

Article 62 of Macron’s reforms is designed to ease advertising restrictions in large sporting stadiums so as to increase local regional and municipal fund-raising efforts – and, significantly, one of the most controversial aspects of the Loi Evin is the imprecision of its wording regarding what might and might not be construed as ‘advertising’. The original wording (L.3323-3 of the French public health code) bans what is called ‘propagande ou publicité indirecte’ (propaganda or indirect advertising) for alcohol and tobacco products, and this has on occasion left the media in a paroxysm of uncertainty about whether or not it is allowed to feature or cover wine, and how it should treat it. (I wrote last year about the zeal with which anti-alcohol lobby groups have tried to use the Loi Evin).

The mayor of Rauzan in Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers, Gérard César, is a long-serving senator in France’s upper house, the Sénat, and he saw an opportunity, via article 62b of the Loi Macron, to specify more precisely what might truly be judged as ‘propagande ou publicité indirecte’ in these contexts. His modest and eminently sensible amendments (the French versions of which can be viewed here) were carried by the upper house in May, and — to the credit of all concerned — ratified by the lower house, the Chambre des Députés, on June 10th. Yet the Health Minister, Marisol Touraine, greeted the vote as “a hard blow for public health,” claimed she was furious about it, and has said she intends to use the government’s power to eliminate the amendment at a later stage. M.Evin himself, who has now quit frontline politics and returned to teaching, the law and health administration, has said the amendment “will, de facto, permit the possibility of alcohol advertising, almost without limits”.

Both reactions seem preposterous.   Perhaps simple politics is at work – Touraine and Evin are Socialists, whereas César belongs to the newly re-named Republicans, formerly the UMP. Yet his amendment was carried with socialist support in the lower house, notably from the Gironde Socialist deputy Gilles Savary, who castigated “the over-reaction of the health lobby”.

This spat blew up just before President Hollande went to Bordeaux to open this year’s Vinexpo, and his speech was therefore chiefly picked over for his reaction to the successful passage of an amendment to a long-standing piece of Socialist legislation. More significant, surely, was that he was there at all.

Vinexpo is 10 years older than the Loi Evin, and none of the three previous French presidents (Mitterand, Chirac or Sarkozy) has ever deigned to open it before. Hollande’s 21 minute speech, it seemed to me, was a truly excellent one (a video of it is available here), delivered without any of the laborious pomposity with which his presidential predecessors lavished their every word.

He deftly covered all the bases; mentioned terroir twice; and repeatedly praised French winegrowers’ economic achievements (500,000 jobs; exports worth 12 billion euros; and a budgetary surplus of 10 billion euros), as well as committing the government to supporting those who work in what – Anglophones take note — is never called ‘the wine industry’ here, but always la filière viticole, the wine sector or network. He saluted the globalization of the wine trade (from a 25 per cent export presence in world wine markets to over 40 per cent in ten years), and lent support to the appellation system, French spirits, the OIV, UNESCO heritage listings and wine tourism. He even found time to praise the “bitter beauty” of France’s wine landscapes. And on the Loi Evin?

A question sensible (a sensitive question), he said, and claimed that the way it preserved a balance of differing interests – avoiding excessive taxation while at the same time “curbing the unfettered promotion which might encourage abuse” — was a “French model” which needed preserving. But he didn’t argue with the notion that ‘clarification’ was an important part of ensuring that the law remained viable. Perhaps all is not lost.

Indeed since his speech, the government has promised a ‘clarification’ of the Loi Evin “which will permit the avoidance of unnecessary court cases” against journalists or media organizations who are simply aiming to report and not to promote on the wine world and on alcoholic drinks in general.

President Hollande then went on to tour the fair and taste wines, including white wines from Savoie and a Montravel Rouge from Ch Moulin Caresse (the 2010 ‘Cent pour 100’ cuvée) which he described, with almost Parker-ish enthusiasm, as ‘a bomb’. This was not, you should know, something his teetotal predecessor would have done.

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