April, 2008, saw the French media have a field day as they reported the case of a baby that died due to, allegedly, malnutrition from being breastfed by its vegan mother. As in a similar 2004/5 case, the parents have been arrested, charged with mistreating their 11-month-old daughter. They are also accused of depriving her of medical treatment, since she had been suffering from bronchitis which her father was treating with natural remedies, in the home. The parents allegedly explained that they have no confidence in doctors and modern drug therapies, a fact which public opinion is encouraged to (and probably does) consider almost as unpardonable as that they are both vegan… And, to top the story off, the father runs a health food shop (in Amiens), so a subtle swipe could be had at that humbug, as well…
Of course, in France, as elsewhere, the media helps to shape public opinion, doing so according to the needs of the various lobbies that give them big money for advertising. Unlike the States, only a very few media organs have any other slant on events than the official one. The medical industry, being second only to oil in size and financial clout, does a particularly noteworthy job, in this climate, of filtering information. One example is the fact that any discussion of statistics on adverse reactions to doctor-prescribed drug treatments is nowhere to be found here… Statistics undoubtedly exist, as there is an official body ( the 'Centre de Pharmacovigilance') overseeing such 'events', but no public attention is focused on this body, and certainly it issues no pronouncements or warnings that reach the public ear. Health care professionals who might have access to these statistics are under the authority of the 'Conseils de l'Ordre', equivalent to the medical association licensing boards in the States but, by tradition, even more brutally controlling (this system dates back only to Vichy). Thus, the French public has no overview of the seriousness of this problem, even though some important lawsuits against pharmaceutical laboratories, responsible for hundreds of injuries and deaths (in the human growth hormone and the Vioxx scandals, to name but two), cannot escape being reported. We do know of one doctor, a declared advocate (but softly, softly) of a total overhaul for all things medical, who has suggested (and logically) that the incidence of illness and death caused by adverse drug reactions in France is on a scale with that in more forthcoming nations. He did this already back in the 70s! In fact, the analysis and interpretation of such statistics has been done elsewhere not by the medical industry itself, but rather by a few concerned and courageous doctors, reacting to what anyone can see is a catastrophic situation. In the US, a committee was founded, including no less than five prominent doctors shouldering responsibility together, to carry out and report on the analysis of these statistics. The result of their work, published in 2005, indicates that the number one cause of death and injury in the country is doctor-prescribed drug treatments (far surpassing deaths from cancer or heart disease). (See :
http://www.healthe-livingnews.com/articles/death_by_medicine_part_1.html ) . Of course, Quackwatch, the medical profession's unofficial internet witchhunting body, has tried to rebut this work by attempting to discredit its authors. Still, so high is the incidence that virtually everyone in the States is said to have a friend or relative who has been a victim…
In France, where powerful lobbies can strangle or deform information pretty much at will, and where no culture of solidarity exists, but rather a tradition of impassivity as maverick individuals of independent mind are publicly broken, opposition to officially sanctioned thought requires courage indeed. (If one wants examples of brilliant medical people who spoke out against mainstream thought and were subsequently broken –and by the government– see the stories of Mirko Beljanski, or Loic Le Ribault, for a start).
I mentioned this new case of a dead baby to a woman I met in Nice a couple of weeks ago, an American of Indian (Hindu) origin. She reacted exactly as I had supposed she would, by looking at me with incredulity and amazement. Surely I was kidding. Wasn't I? Sadly, no.
'But don't they know,' she protested, 'that in India, to take just one example, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of mothers who take no animals products, and their babies don't die of malnutrition?'
No, the majority of the French don't know these things. Linguistic isolation, and the resulting exclusive dependence on French authorities for news and analysis, reinforced by French chauvinism, keeps the public ignorant and squarely under the thumb of those who control the media here, and who can thus shape public opinion at will, and even in defiance of facts.
In the 2004/5 prosecution of the vegan parents whose breastfed baby died, the parents were sentenced to long prison terms, but released after eight months. We can easily surmise what they must have gone through, their isolation and despair, and what pressures must have been put on them to compromise, in order to win back their 'freedom' (they had, by the way, three other children who needed them). A husband and wife with the whole French government on their backs could only feel terrified (intimidated is too gentle a word for it). What we do know is that, upon their release from prison, they gave a press conference for the sole purpose of declaring that they had seen the light and returned to a healthy meat-based diet again.
Has nothing changed since Galileo's time?
As one has come to expect in France, whenever vegetarianism is the subject of media discussion, the news reports, each and every one, were complete with doctors, even professors, trotted out for the camera, stating categorically, and adversarily, that a vegan diet is dangerous, and particularly so for nursing babies… According to these medical authorities, backing up the Public Prosecutor, the death of this child was inevitable, and therefore criminal. None of the vegan mothers (and there are some) in France will ever succeed in accessing the media for a chance to reply, or to exhibit the exceptional health of their breastfed children.
Indeed, it would appear that the baby in this recent case probably died of its brochitis. And it may even be that modern medicine would not have been able to save the child, for babies die every day in France (as elsewhere) from bronchitis and other diseases, whether in hospitals or clinics or at home, without their devastated parents being hussled off to jail and prosecuted. But, of course, with 20/20 hindsight, the good doctors aren't likely to admit that. Strange. Strange, too, that, after a few days of hullabaloo, no more is heard of this case. So, the broad French public will retain what the chosen 'experts' had to say, and, outraged, will condemn other vegans, in spite of the facts, which they will never bother to learn, because they heard what the good doctors said, and they wouldn't have been able to say it, and on television, if it weren't true, right?
Without an independent autopsy, who can be sure what this baby really died of? Will the parents be able to stand up to public opinion and insist on an 'autopsie contradictoire', independent of the State medical authority? Is it even possible to obtain a truly independent second opinion, based on verifiable facts and not on prejudices? (And we thought we had left the Middle Ages behind…)
As in the 2004/5 case, the French vegetarian societies are noteworthy for their silence (or perhaps they are, in fact, beating down the doors to the media, but being snubbed?). Undoubtedly, they have all made statements, but who ever sees these? What media will give them a voice? Issuing press releases that will not be publicized is hardly a sufficient response to this latest onslaught of misinformation, both nutritional and medical.
In any case, in regard to vegetarianism, there is no public spokesperson imposing him/herself, such as José Bové has done, in and out of jail, for the farmers and agricultural workers, and for the environmental movement, against OGM crops. So the public neither sees nor hears opposition to the misinformation being spread about vegetarians and vegans. With no lobby to push for the truth, and without the private means, or the psychological makeup, for the appeals process, these parents risk being railroaded into prison, as was the couple in 2004/5.
What would be ideal is for a duly constituted association to assist in their legal defense, ensuring that the pertinent facts are taken into consideration. But, instead of closing ranks against this media attack, one French vegetarian association has instead attacked these parents ( ! ) for being sectarian, because of their stand against drug therapies… The fly in the ointment in 2004/5, which justified these associations in keeping their distance, was that those parents were adepts of kinesiology. Even so, in both cases, it is clear that it is vegetarianism/veganism that is under attack.
In fact, there has been for years an official, government-backed witchhunt on, in public opinion, for 'sects', which lumps all and sundry into the same bag, essentially all those whose ideas challenge mainstream, offically sanctioned thought. When sects and other 'heretics' are discovered, they are no longer burned at the stake, it is true, but they are instead publicly branded, vilified, and then ostracized, often literally, by being incarcerated. Once squeezed through this wringer, who will listen to what you have to say? Certainly, the media will not report it. Or if they feel they must appear 'fair' and 'balanced', they will choose spokespeople who are unable to effectively defend the ideas under attack.
Meanwhile, parents are warned that young people, and even children, are particular targets for induction into sects, and that often the first sign of them being in 'danger' is a refusal to eat meat! In the public mind, this is a well-conditioned mental reflex… If you are vegetarian, you must be in a sect!
Where is the French Clarence Darrow, to take on such utter nonsense and challenge these absurd ideas? Alas, no such champion is on the horizon…
Even if French vegetarian societies operate on a shoestring, there are associations that claim to be international and that promote vegetarianism, and even veganism, as part of animal defense, and which do have millions in their bank accounts, amassed from donations intended for promoting the wellbeing of animals. Some of that money could be spent on this legal defense, and on publicizing the eventual trial, as a means of countering official misinformation. In the long run, we think this would be more useful towards reducing animal suffering, than, for example, offering a million dollar prize to whoever comes up with a laboratory-produced, commercially viable, cloned 'meat'… (This offer, by the way, entirely overlooks public reaction in Europe to the so-called Frankenstein GMO food controversy. For once, encouraged by José Bové's 'Confederation Paysanne', misinformation is not winning the public mind, whether in the crop fields, or in the jailhouses.)
Of course, due to the peculiar 'mysteries' of the French legal system, it is totally possible to prove the case for the healthiness of a vegetarian and even a vegan diet, and still lose this case in court. However, even in the present reign of market influences, it is nonetheless true that some French judges are working hard to restore integrity to their profession. Whatever, as the authorities have imposed themselves in the present case, a trial cannot be avoided, along with its probable outcome in the lower court… Nevertheless, this case deserves to make its way through the appeals process, thus ultimately qualifying to go beyond French borders, to clearer heads at the European Court, for a final judgment (where, we are told, the saying is that any suit that comes from France automatically wins, since there is so little justice in this country.)
And so, the question of the inherent cruelty to animals in industrial farming, as well as the possibility of preventing human ailments through a healthy lifestyle (which cannot include the consumption of vast quantities of dead flesh), is not on the agenda for consideration by French public opinion. What need is there to talk about what everyone knows and agrees on? Industries that rely on animal products for their profits, and the government, which defends the interests of those industries, will certainly take all measures possible to ensure that these questions are never seriously raised in the media. Thus, the vegetarian associations know very well how limited is the scope in which they can speak and act, and how their words and actions as individuals will be distorted, and ultimately used against them, if at all possible. Why, there are, in France (as everywhere), infiltrators pretending to be vegetarian, even vegan, in order to influence the movement, and to wear it down from within, notably by creating internal conflicts, but also by encourging actions that maintain the public perception of 'eccentricity', and, worse, the absurd conviction that this diet is not 'normal', that it is 'dangerous'– unless vitamin supplements are taken! (How have the mothers of India survived all these thousands of years without vitamen supplements?) The long-term result of this particular subversion is that young people, attracted to vegetarianism at a time in their lives when they are open to new ideas, particularly rebellious ideas, may very well eat vegetarian for a while, but when their rebelling days are over, when they must at last settle down to the serious responsibilities of life, they will certainly return to the fold, becoming like everyone else, and eating a diet which includes meat, and ever more emphasis on more and more meat…
Such simplemindedness makes life more convenient for both the giver and the receiver of opinions, the the problem is that it only holds sway up to the French borders. Beyond it is a different world. In France, it would seem, there is only the internet for effectively relating 'the other side of the story' on so many issues. To counter that new and potentially dangerous (to the status quo) influence, the current coin is that 'you can't believe everything you read on the internet', implying that your ideas are part of that everything that shouldn't be believed. Besides, most French people above a certain age still don't have internet, and don't want to get involved with what is seen as a subversive, expensive and complicated toy. T.V. is so much easier!
Certainly, all those foreign tourists, guidebooks in hand, seeking out vegetarian restaurants, and ordering food ('without meat, fish, eggs or dairy, please') in the restaurants that tourists frequent, and, as well, young people learning languages and traveling as the French never before have, will eventually wear away received ideas. Where we are, in Nice, which depends so much on tourism, the four and five-star restaurants already have hired chiefs able to cater to foreign vegetarians. At the same time, the local hotel and restaurant school, which proposed courses in vegetarian cuisine for a number of years, has recently, once again, cut this line of study out.
But foreign tourists, unable to afford four or five-star fare, and not often finding vegetarian restaurants in the current climate, can expect, and for some time yet to come, bacon bits in salads, and beef broth in soups and sauces…
Guénady is a native Californian, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley,
and has lived as an expat in France for over thirty years. This experience has afforded
unique opportunities for observing French society and, in particular, Guénady's main
center of interest, the French animal defense movement. Guenady is also a member
of the French Syndicat des Journalistes et Ecrivains.