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I Drink Therefore I Am

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski
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One can't be left alone to indulge one's poison, these days, without some bothersome governmental agency, or the busy-body press, sticking its nose in one's businesses.

There is no doubt the French are anarchic. Their particular brand of anarchy is controlled anarchy, but it is anarchy nonetheless. As Gérard Depardieu took out a cigarette on the hugely popular BBC chat show Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, a ripple of nervous laughter broke out amongst the audience. The great French actor was enjoying the first few puffs of his smoke, before turning round to the audience and asking them if they minded him smoking. Ross gathered himself and informed Depardieu that he was breaking the law and that he needed to put the cigarette out. "Non" -- the response was one that mixed incredulity with defiance: it might be illegal in pubs, but this was the BBC! And yet at the same time what he seemed to be suggesting was 'who really cares about anti-smoking laws anyway?' Obviously not the French. Not having an ashtray, he crushed the offending item between the sole of his shoe and the plush red carpet.

Since the introduction of the loi Evin in 1991, smoking in public places in France has been illegal. The law forced cafés and restaurants to create designated smoking areas. Though this often means a single table by the toilets, the law does exist. In theory anyone caught smoking in a public place can be fined up to 450 euros (or roughly 90 packets of cigarettes for the nicotine fiends amongst you). In practice, it would appear that no one has yet to be charged with the offence. If ever you find yourself waiting for luggage at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, you'll notice the French joyously lighting up as if it were a bold symbol of their new found freedom from those human-rights-restricting flight regulations. This to the looped backdrop of a suave electronic voice reminding people of the law. And tutting Americans.

But the killjoy law brought in by the then socialist Minister for Social Affairs and Solidarity Claude Evin doesn't stop there. Beyond the obvious paradox - socialism and solidarity but yet you can't even have a puff… What's that about? - it also brought in tighter regulations regarding the advertising of alcoholic beverages and underage drinking. But at times it is difficult to see what this actually means beyond the fact that you can't seem to mention alcohol without adding the phrase: à consommer avec moderation. So much so, that this has become an ironic aside when anything even remotely linked to having a good time is mentioned: chocolate, red meat, television, holidaying, scratching. "L'oxygène! à consommer avec moderation…"

It wasn't that Depardieu had sparked up on national British television that pushed the French media into reporting this fait divers, but the possibility that he might have been drunk. The French actor is currently promoting his cookbook, but it is what he drinks that is making the headlines. Or rather how much he drinks. In a recent Observer article he claimed to drink anything between three and six bottles a day, depending on whether or not he felt stressed ("Voulez-vous poulet avec moi?", 4 September 05). During his television appearance he confirmed this. But he did go on to add "Wine is not alcohol."

Unfortunately that last statement isn't backed up by the World Health Organisation. I know, I know, who's to say that the WHO get it right every time? In fact, many Frenchmen (we'll come back to macho bravado in a moment) would argue that they drink red wine pour le cœur. Of course, one could go further: whiskey keeps colds at bay, gin and tonic wards off malaria, beer ensures that impure water won't give you dysentery. But just for arguments sake, let's admit Gérard might be mistaken on this one.

There is a contingency of young British men who think they drink the most in Europe. And they will tell you this with pride. They drink the most because they are God's gift to women. And it is well known that women judge male prowess by men's capacity to pick fights, vomit, and sleep in doorways. When holidaying on the Continent they will jeer at the demi-drinking French and take refuge in pint-serving Irish theme pubs. But the pride is misplaced. In all, the average French person drinks thirteen-and-a-half litres of pure alcohol a year -- three litres more than the average Brit. Indeed, the British are even below the European average.

Yet France is a country of contradictions - with one of the highest frequencies of drinking amongst their fellow Europeans also comes the highest rate of abstinence. But where the Brits do come top with the French propping up the bottom of the league table, is in the heavy-drinking stakes. You're binge-drinking if you have 10 or more units in one session, that's about five pints. And it would seem that an awful lot of British men and women are doing just that. The solution that the British government seems to have adopted to curb this problem is twofold: on the one hand, they have brought in Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) to combat yobbish behaviour (sometimes seen as the only qualification the disenfranchised youth have a chance of obtaining), and on the other they are going to introduce 24-hour licensing laws so as to, well, dilute the problem.

Though the bill hasn't had the smoothest of passages, as from 24th November it is hoped that the Brits will suddenly adopt a continental-style of drinking. Gone will be that Pavlov thing where the bell for last orders is rung and everyone runs to the bar to order another five pints and a nip. No more drinking against the clock. And, more importantly, out with the drunken street brawls at chucking out time. 'But,' I hear you ask, 'when will the men know when to leave the pub and go home to their wives?' 'Hmmm,' I respond, 'what century are you living in exactly?' Findings by the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London reveal that women in their 20s are more likely to be found guzzling down the pints than their male counterparts. But it's all going to be a thing of the past as we see beer gardens transformed into street-side terasses where young adults discuss the plural nature of the contemporary individual in an increasingly intangible universe.

And this will go on in black and white, whilst wearing roll necks and smoking Gauloises. Yes, because that's precisely what the lads and ladettes do when they travel to such places as the Greek resort of Faliraki. Indeed, in the past, the British police force has found it necessary to fly officers into Greece to arbitrate rather heated discussions about the ultimate substance of all reality. Can't those holiday reps keep control over anything?! This must also be why Faliraki taxi drivers have taken to carrying wooden clubs.

With 24-hour licensing laws, will the 'session' spring into a long and tranquil river? or will it develop into a marathon? The debate will undoubtedly continue on over a few drinks. And, of course, we all revel in tales of heroic drunks and drunken heroes. The media interest around the somewhat worse for wear appearance of cricketing hero Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff the day after England won back the Ashes from Australia, was only surpassed by stories of Freddie having to relieve himself at 10 Downing Street later that day. Tony Blair probably adopted his defensive grin with more ham than Lawrence Olivier could shake a pork scratching at. Speaking from Trafalgar Square Freddie admitted, "To be honest, I'm struggling. I've not been to bed yet. The eyes behind these glasses tell a thousand stories." Mark my words, he'll win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award this December.

Yet when it comes to substance abuse, it would appear that the line is drawn at hard drugs, as Kate Moss recently found out. The model has been dropped as the face of Swedish retailer H&M after she was secretly photographed at a private party in a pose that suggested she might be snorting cocaine. Or as those romantic guys at the Mirror put it: "supermodel Kate Moss snorting a fat line of cocaine during a debauched drugs and drink session with junkie lover Pete Doherty." ("Exclusive: Cocaine Kate" 15 September 05.) Are these double standards? Probably. As it has been pointed out by others, Paul McCartney has openly stated the fact that he once took drugs, including heroine and cocaine, and he is now a knight of the realm.

In the meantime, Depardieu, the contemporary Pantagruel, may or may not have made the most of a little Dutch courage to slag off the BBC for not having invested in his production of Napoleon after they cashed in on his Monte Cristo, whilst being paid by the corporation to appear on its flagship chat show. But in true Pantagruelesque fashion, he finished by admitting that those productions were two merdes.

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