The French Consider Foer's Vegetarianism: 'We Are Not Elves!'

Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals is published in the land of steak frites

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In January, a great controversy was unleashed upon poor, unsuspecting Gallic diners: the publication of the French edition of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. The continental connoisseurs of steak frites were treated to a peculiarly American strain of modern foodies: the eco-moral-foodieism of le yuppie. Foer, notre chaton, shouldn't you have warned them first? The result, of course, has been something akin to the reaction when eco-moral vegetarian tracts along the lines of Eating Animals first began making real inroads with American popular culture. As in the States, Foer hasn't been the only one to offer up anti-carnivorous arguments to skeptical meat-eaters. For example, Marcela Iacub, author of Confessions of a Meat-Eater, a book about her conversion to vegetarianism, is cited by French publication L'Express in discussing Foer's book. Nevertheless, the growing debate and backlash in the months since Faut-il manger les animaux?--Foer's title, Frenchified--appeared on these gastronomes' shelves is guaranteed to amuse.

It Reminds Them of Michael Moore Adrien Gombeaud for Les Echos says the book's argument is "based on the accumulation of examples, of anecdotes, of funny or scandalous situations which Foer attends more or less clandestinely," and thus "is constructed like a Michael Moore film." His derisive conclusion:
The author spent three years investigating to find what he wanted: the conditions of raising and slaughtering animals described here are indeed shameful and disgusting. But if he had spent three more years investigating agriculture, doubtless he would have stopped eating vegetables, too... he would have therefore written a book even more surprisingly titled 'Should We Really Eat?'

What's the Point of Vegetarianism If It Doesn't Give You Great Skin? L'Express reacts to the "media hype around the excellent work of Jonathan Safran Foer" by having eight of their journalists try vegetarianism for ten days--i.e. they "didn't eat meat or fish," L'Express explains, helpfully, to readers. "Code name: Vegethon ... The Goal: to better understand the not so easy daily life of vegetarians, but also to taste the short-term effects of this type of diet." At the end, they asked the testers and a "specialist": "Is it impossible to adopt this system still largely unknown in France--2% of the population being vegetarian? Does it necessarily lead to deficiencies?" One of the more amusing responses of the testers: "I thought I was going to see changes, see a metamorphosis, but no! My skin was not more beautiful, I do not feel lighter, I have not lost weight." (To be fair, plenty of American expect these things of their diets, too.)

'We Are Not Elves, for Heaven's Sake!' That's the reaction from Maryline Patou-Mathis of the National Centre for Scientific Research to Le Nouvel Observateur's Elodie Lepage. Patou-Mathis adds, "People who refuse to eat meat are simply denying their animal side. They are forgetting that humans are omnivorous and that our metabolism is perfectly fit to assimilate meat." The entire article runs, translated, in Worldcrunch, which our faithful reader Super Chundy pointed us to a few days ago. An excerpt from Worldcrunch's translation, which shows some of the identity crisis provoked by this debate:
"Enough is enough," Le Bourdonnec exclaims in his little butcher shop in the Asnières suburb of Paris. "Being against beef-eating in France doesn't make any sense. Being against pork or poultry, that's ok." ... Le Bourdonnec says France has none of the intensive beef farms that Jonathan Safran Foer describes ... "This kind of breeding can only be used for fast growing cows, which our cows are not. So the issues Safran Foer speaks about are specific to the Unites States, not France."
... In France, the book has helped the cause of vegetarians and animal rights activists. It is more and more common to see dinner guests unapologetically refusing to touch their host's roast beef. Even the once proudest carnivores are now starting to feel guilty in front of their steak. ... Should all meat-eaters feel ashamed? "Definitely not!" says anthropologist Genevière Cazes-Valette. The whole controversy surrounding meat "is a lot of noise that has nothing to do with the attitude French people actually have towards meat. Figures show that the French still gobble up large quantities of meat: only 1.2 to 1.3% of the population are vegetarians. And our country has the highest meat consumption rate in Europe."

French Intellectuals Consider the Matter Rafaële Rivais reviews the philosopher Dominique Lestel's "Apology of the carnivore," referring to Foer at the end of the review, in Le Monde. Lestel "critiques the posture of the 'vegetarian ethic' ... which forbids others to consume beef on the premise that one shouldn't kill animals." For example, he argues, according to Rivais, that "the carnivore reaffirms his own 'animality'" and "admits that he is 'implicated in the cycle of life and death that signifies the life of the animal'; [Lestel] considers it an illusion to believe we can feed ourselves without killing--animals or vegetables--for the reality is a 'world of conflict,' of opposing interests." On the other hand, Lestel apparently likes the vegetarian opposition to "'factory farming and environmental destruction.'" Here's the question with which he leaves the reader, quoted by Rivais: "Is the solution to become a political vegetarian who occasionally and ritualistically becomes a carnivore?" Of course. As if we were going to forget: France may have given us Auguste Escoffier, Joël Robuchon, and Paul Bocuse, but it raised Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, too.

The definitive, thoughtful word on Foer, specifically, seems to come from Raphaëlle Rérolle's original January review in Le Monde. "Although he interviewed a number of actors in the [industrial meat] sector in the United States, Jonathan Safran Foer did not write a journalistic book, nor yet a scientific treatise. It's not a book of philosophy either, although questions of ethics play a large role. It is a 'hybrid' work ... and the essay of a non-specialist writer. ... But if he doesn't go quite to the end of the question he raises, Safran Foer at least has the great merit of making us unable to be protected by our innocence."

Heather Horn is fluent in written German and French, and proficient in written Arabic. All other languages are muddled through with the help of Google Translate.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.