Food Policy

France Targets Grocers—and Therefore Consumers—With Awful New Food Law

At a time of civil unrest, France's government wants to push retail food prices even higher.


Regis Duvignau/REUTERS/Newscom

France, it seems, has long been plagued by two towering evils. First, French farmers feel they're underpaid for the foods they produce and sell. These farmers find different ways to protest every year. In 2016, for example, French farmers protested lower milk and pork prices by dumping manure in roadways and blocking traffic. French farmers launched similar protests last year and in 2015. Oh, also in 2014. If I liked puns, I'd say that such protests are almost a riot of passage.

Second, French consumers appear to believe that a sale on Nutella, the sugary-chocolaty-nutty spread, is reason enough to act like they're auditioning for a Black Friday sale fight in the United States or something slightly less traumatic—say, the grocery scene in Bird Box.

This is not hyperbole. Nutella discounts "caused turmoil in France last [year] as hundreds of French citizens fought to buy stockpiles of the chocolate and hazelnut spread." The seventy-percent Nutella discount is widely blamed for consumer violence (video) in French grocery stores. (Anyone who's ever visited France—also, anyone who hasn't—knows that "[s]ome Paris grocery stores are much larger or smaller than others.")

As befitting Nutella, those riots spread. This led French lawmakers to consider a law banning such discounts.

Enter that new French food law, cleverly dubbed Loi Alimentation ("food law"). The law, which debuted this week, is intended to help French farmers by increasing their margins without somehow also hurting the grocers who sell the foods they grow. French agriculture minister Didier Guillaume says the new law is intended to "find a way [for grocers] to spread their margins differently." (Again: "spread.")

This month, according to the European grocery site Retail Detail, the already "infamous" law is making some grocery food more expensive for consumers in the country. Calculations reported by Retail Detail suggest the price of many popular foods has risen on average by more than six percent, including more than eight percent for Nutella. That's because the law bans many food promotions—including, for example, steep discounts on Nutella—and effectively raises the minimum prices stores may charge for many popular foods.

On the farming side, the law lets the government squeeze distributors, forcing them to cut margins on agricultural products such as meat and vegetables, theoretically without impacting the price grocers fetch from consumers. "The government hopes that by making shops pay more to their suppliers—the wholesalers—the latter will pay more to French food and drink producers," the BBC reported last week. "That is because the wholesalers' income should increase as consumers pay higher prices for certain brands."

But the law is almost certain to backfire and produce a rash of unintended consequences.

"How consumers paying more for Coke will result in higher milk prices for France's farmers is unclear," The Economist wonders.

"There are doubts about whether the new law will actually work as hoped," the BBC cautions.

Mathieu Escot of the French consumer rights group UFC Que Choisir said the law discriminates against lower-income consumers, who will pay more at a time when France is racked by protests over the rising cost of living.

"So it's French people on more modest incomes, with weak purchasing power, who will pay," Escot told the BBC. And pay they will. Estimates suggest the new law will cost French consumers nearly more than $1.5 billion.

The law's intended bite also may prove rather toothless. Euronews reports "there is no legal mechanism to make [grocers] reduce their profit margins on agricultural goods."

Some French grocers aren't taking the new law lying down. Michel-Edouard Leclerc, the head of French hypermarket chain E.Leclerc, says the company will obey the law "but we're going to be smart about it: we are going to increase the amount of coupons, do things that are legal and lower the prices of 4,600 products under our private label." Carrefour, another French hypermarket chain, is also working around the law.

But French farmers and a French grocer's association—Leclerc is not a member, though Carrefour is—are hailing the new law, mostly because they believe it will save them from themselves.

I have some sympathy for French grocers—at least those who don't support the new food law. After all, this is at least the second lousy law French grocers have been forced to combat in the past several months. Last summer, I discussed how French grocery stores were fighting back against dumb EU rules that banned the sale of millions of varieties of agricultural seeds.

France's new food law is intended to solve two problems. If common sense and early returns are any indication, the law won't solve either problem. But boy will it create a whole host of new ones.


NEXT: The Chemists and the Cover-Up

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  1. ‘La Marseilles’ slowly and pathetically comes to a halt as the gramophone winds down

    There is a short, eery silence before cacophonous cheers erupt through the streets of Paris at the sight of Macron’s head on a pike.

    Shortly thereafter, France is back to business as usual as they efficiently manage to install a new slaver despot thinking that would surely solve everything.

    1. France is home of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. I’m almost certain they view him as ‘he did good things and was on the right path. He just took it too far’

      Not surprising.

      1. He just took it too far
        And then he was killed

        1. And thus the problem was addressed. From 9 Thermidor to 13 Vendemiaire was 70 days…

          Pour encourager les autres…

          Ironically the origin of the phrase is a french satire of the British’s treatment of Admiral Byng

  2. Governments around the world are intent on sparking runaway inflation to cover the debt incurred from their reckless spending. All done in the name of protecting producers or workers.

  3. Farmers almost always feel they are being underpaid for the fruit of their labor. Why should they be different from everybody else? And no government bureaucracy even ran into a problem it didn’t think could be solved by the application of government bureaucracy.

    About two thirds of France’s governmental problems throughout history could have been avoided if Paris was ringed, at a distance of about half a day’s travel, by comfortable inns with cheap food and capacious wastepaper baskets, where messengers from the government to the outlying provinces could relax and dispose of whatever off-the-wallery the idiots in Paris were up to now. Sadly, there is no effective way of arranging this without the knowledge (and outrage) of the idiots in Paris….

  4. If common sense and early returns are any indication, writes Baylen Linnekin, the law won’t solve either problem. But it will create a whole host of new ones.

    Yup. Like building the wall. Or Medicare-for-most.

    1. Or indeed everything government does, because it is all done without accountability.

    2. “Or Medicare-for-most”

      Or Medicaid for all. (per Paul Krugman)

  5. The populists are always right when they say that elitists are the problem. The populists are just wrong about the solution to that problem. No, the solution isn’t to give the reigns of government to different elitists who really care about the common people.

    The elitists are wrong about using elitism to solve people’s problems, but, even worse than elitists, they’re wrong about the cause of the problem, too. The problem is the elitists, and, no, they’ll never cop to that.

    So, if we’re ranking these groups in terms of who understands the problem an who understands the solution, it goes like this:

    1) libertarians.
    2) Populists.
    3) Elitists.

    Elitists don’t know that they’re the problem, and they think more elitism is the solution.

    Populists know that the elitists are the problem, but they think getting better elitists is the solution.

    libertarians know that the problem is the people, and the solution is to fix what’s in their heads. After all, what can we do for people who fear their own freedom but persuade them to want it?

    1. The problem is government, coercive and monopolistic, which has no market pressure to survive.

      If, for example, people could sign up for a mini-government of their choosing, even one with coercive powers, but without a geographic monopoly, and all such signups expired after one year, those elites could do whatever they wanted, even literally get away with murder and large scale theft. But they would be subject to market accountability, because who would sign up for such poorly run governments? Fiscal accountability would be in there too; they could print their own money all they wanted, but borrowing would be a lot trickier with runaway inflation and declining membership.

      1. I agree. Government intervention in markets ALWAYS makes things more expensive.

        Ken Schultz states the problem well: “the problem is the people … who fear their own freedom” though I’d say a lot of that is also due to people, with envy, who want government to be their daddy and take care of them, and who advocate government use of force against others to do it. And then I remember, you can’t have freedom and the prosperity that comes with it, unless you are first willing to give it to others, and hope others learn that lesson soon.

        1. People gonna people, yo.

        2. I once heard somebody say something that I think many libertarians miss:

          They don’t realize that freedom is largely NOT useful for some people. If you’re a low IQ, lazy, person… What good is freedom? It doesn’t really do much for you. I mean it does SOME stuff for you. Richer societies have better off poor than poor countries, and economic freedom is mostly responsible. But that’s only to a point.

          A strong, smart, hard working person benefits GREATLY from personal freedom. That’s why those type of people appreciate it. But blow it cases don’t really get nearly as much from it as badass people do.

          This is why they logically are in favor of limiting freedom when it directly benefits them, at the expense of the more successful. I think Europe shows rather perfectly that a well balanced level of theft can in fact benefit such slackers. Their society overall is poorer than it would be, and this is bad for the majority of the country… But that lowest, slacker-est portion of the population… They really do seem to be better off than having more freedom.

          It’s just a matter of not killing the goose that lays the golden eggs for them really. Which they often do since they’re idiots…

  6. There was French neocon interviewed about the Yellow Vest movement and politics in France yesterday. He was mostly talking about foreign policy, here, but I think there’s more to it than that. Here’s what he was saying about France:

    The extreme left and right see “Trump killing America?and they like that. They like the idea of an American president destroying the values of America. They hate these values. They hate exceptionalism. They hate the idea of spreading democracy. They hated the neoconservative movement. So for them, Trump is a blessing.” In fact, he adds, one of the points on which far left and right agree in France is that “America is the embodiment of evil, not Russia.”…..549668746?

    There’s something to the suggestion that France hates free market solutions because associate them with America, and the French hate anything American. It isn’t just foreign policy and free markets either–they hate American ideas like “multiculturalism”, too. I don’t suppose there is any culture that survived into the 21st century that was more confident of its own supremacy than France. That’s essentially why they use a model of forced integration (total failure) rather than multiculturalism with immigrants, and that’s also part of the reason why they’d rather try anything so long as it doesn’t reek of America.

    1. They even renamed the quarter-pounder with cheese.

    2. Well, you can chock it up to a broken clock being right twice a day… But multiculturalism is a failure, and a horrible idea.

      Frankly, multi racialism is a horrible idea too. At least if you want to have a functional, stable society that isn’t plagued by endless infighting… But multiculturalism is doomed to utter failure.

      No nation will be able to hold itself together without continual application of force, and violating freedom of association, while having multiculturalism. PERIOD.

      The western world is destroying its ability to exist as functional societies out of some misplaced idea that it’s moral to allow your own civilization to be obliterated… Because feelz.

      The experiment is crumbling because NOBODY likes it. And because it devolving into racial/ethnic infighting was ALWAYS the only possible outcome. Human biology and psychology made that the guaranteed outcome. Any other opinion is pure utopian thinking.

  7. Nutella has repealed the Jews as convenient scapegoat.

    I know the French are eccentric but this is pushing it too far!

    1. I should note that most sales in the US have the disclaimer of “limit 2 per customer” or something like that. The French distributor was so unused to the idea of a sale that they just plain forgot to put limits on the sale.

  8. The allies, France, Britain and Russia.

  9. Don’t the French farmers have a co-op to inflate prices? Are they undercut by Polish goods?

  10. Nutella arose as a war-time (1944) substitute for chocolate, which Italians couldn’t get. Pietro Ferroro, who owned a tiny sweet shop, concocted it, earning the sobriquet “Real Life Willie Wonka.”

    By 2011 his grandson (also named Pietro) died at age 47 while cycling through South Africa. Fell off the bike with a cardiac issue, right in the road, but was in terrific shape for heart attack victim and known as the most eligible bachelor in Europe. Being worth some $15 billion at the time (Nutella is closely held family business and has shunned buy-outs from such as Nestles) this untimely death was tragic indeed to ladies who had their sights on him.

    Myself, it is snowing here in Seattle (SNOWMAGEDDON!) so I am going to read all day by the fire and eat Nutella on raisin bread toast. I shun exercise as a rule, especially biking because they make you wear spandex, Socialism is really blossoming hereabouts so I will probably hit the brandy later on to avoid dwelling on that stupidity.

    1. You’re in Seattle too huh? I know Diane is, I am as well. This snow is some shit!

      Nutella is pretty good stuff. I never buy it, but like it when I have it out and about.

  11. French society is collapsing.

    The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter – pdf. The good stuff starts in Chapter 4. – about 3 minutes

  12. Meh. The French exist to argue. Striking as sport is just part of that.

  13. I have a question.

    What the fuck is “nearly more than”. Is it meant to introduce some kind of uncertainty about something that is clearly known? It’s NOT “more than”, but it COULD BE?? WTF?

    (from “… the new law will cost French consumers nearly more than $1.5 billion.”)

    1. Or is this one of those “better to be morally right than factually right” things?

    2. I think it was a way of not deciding between two phrases. Just put both nearly and more than together. Perfect?

    3. Peaking at just slight nearly over, more or less.

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  15. France could try a market system. Farmers would offer their crops for what they think they’re worth, and shoppers would offer what they think it’s valued. Somewhere in the middle a fair price will be reached. No need for taxes to fund the subsidies to make the prices match what politicians think.

    As for the Nutella, there’s just no curing a Frenchmen of his insanity.

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  17. We hope wholesalers will pay more because consumers will pay more so consumers don’t have to pay more…how stupid are these people?

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