In 1954, Pierre Mendes France committed the state to curbing alcoholism as part of an effort to reorient important agricultural sectors and improve French economic performance, using milk as a symbol of his government's new direction. While Mendes France's milk drinking was often portrayed as the whim of a maverick politician, this article shows instead that it was the expression of a broadly based movement to modernize the economy. Challenging the view of an insular state that exclusively served the powerful alcohol lobbies, this article contends that the success of alcohol reform hinged on Mendes France's ability to overcome parliament and pit other economic sectors and a public health movement against those lobbies. Although it would require the more centralized authority of the Fifth Republic to implement lasting reforms to the alcohol sector, the Mendes France government helped raise public awareness about the purported link between alcoholism and agricultural subsidies that kept uncompetitive producers on the land at the taxpayer's expense.
Keywords: alcohol, alcoholism, agriculture, dirigisme, economic modernization
One sensational attempt at French renewal began with a glass of sugared milk. * In the months following Pierre Mendes France's investiture speech on 17 June 1954, in which he had dramatically declared to the National Assembly that he would decolonize Indochina and "reconstruct France into a strong and prosperous nation," (1) photographs began to appear in the popular press that showed the new French premier drinking milk. "Mendes-Lolo," as the newspapers presented him, was a new kind of man. Premier at 47, Mendes France was sober, dynamic, and young. The conservative daily Le Figaro portrayed Mendes France as a milk-drinking cowboy; for the Communist L'Humanite, he was superman. (2) Whatever superhero the newspapers believed most accurately represented the new French premier, they could all agree on one thing--he was certainly an iconoclastic Frenchman.
The press depicted Mendes France's milk drinking as both a symbolic stand against France's powerful alcohol lobbies and as an affront to French social habits, and for good reason. In the early 1950s, by most accounts estimated that one in five citizens earned a living from alcohol. (3) About 150,000 French people were involved in beet alcohol production; 1.5 million in viticulture; and 3.5 million home distillers drank from their own still. Related industries such as bottling and transport employed approximately 500,000. In addition, some 588,000 drinking establishments, numerous distillers and aperitif firms employed citizens, as compared to the country's 49,000 bakers. (4) French consumers, as a result, drank heavily, spending 685 billion francs each year on alcohol. (5) Though hardly indivisible, the alcohol industry constituted a large electoral bloc, had a powerful influence on Parliament, and successfully linked drinking to national identity.
Given the political and economic weight of alcohol, the centrality of drinking to French identity, and the political instability of the Fourth Republic, why did Pierre Mendes France seek to win public support by promoting sugared milk? This article demonstrates that, far from the whims of a maverick politician, the sugared milk campaign served the...