Pierre Mendès France and the politics of milk

Samuel Young | 9 July 2019

Modern History | European History | Food History | Jewish History | Political History | Religious History

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.

Samuel 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

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