French pharmacies

June 10, 2008By Paris UpdateWhat's New Potpourri

Prescription for Well-being

french pharmacy
The French hope to stop smoking and slim down with the help of their pharmacies. Photo: J. Gascoigne

They say that you will find a pub in almost every Irish village. In France, by contrast, you will always find a pharmacy in even the smallest town. In Paris, if you are suffering from a headache, help is at hand, because there will always be a flashing green sign indicating that a pharmacy is close by. And I can honestly say that in the many French cities and towns I have visited, I have never walked into an empty pharmacy, no matter what the time of day or state of the weather.

Far be it from me to suggest that France is a nation of hypochondriacs, but orderly queues of elderly ladies, sniffling young men, respectably besuited businessmen and glamorously dressed women seem to be permanently stationed in the local pharmacy, while prosperous pharmacists dispense medicine and advice.

Not that advice is necessary. All my French friends are veritable founts of knowledge about the most minor ailments and are fully capable of giving the most detailed and absolute directives about what should be taken. It must be said that usually this involves swallowing truckloads of pills and liquids, all of which are available over the counter, and which are guaranteed to knock you out for a week or three.

But where do the French gain this medical knowledge? I suspect that (even though I have no proof of this) the French school examination system, the baccalauréat, includes courses on the thirty different tablets that need to be ingested if one has a stiff neck, headache or angine (a mysterious ailment that many French people seem to suffer from all winter long, and sometimes even in summer, and which requires the wearing of a woolly scarf around the neck at all times). Those of you who know your Proust may well recognize that the pattern existed many years before, as exemplified by the narrator in In Search of Lost Time.

Speaking of the baccalauréat, only in a French pharmacy could you find brain-stimulating and anti-fatigue pills at exam time. And as for various remedies to lose weight, the world would be your oyster, if it were not for the fact that the world and oysters are rather too round for the shape-conscious French population. There are creams, gels, powders, tablets and liquids available that are supposed to help you stay trim. Until recently, before gyms began to proliferate in Paris, any kind of physical exercise for exercise’s sake was considered somewhat vulgar, and only pharmacists’ wares were deemed appropriate for slimming.

For no doubt laudable reasons, pharmacies have a monopoly on selling medicines, so that it is impossible to buy even an aspirin in a supermarket. As a result, even the most basic over-the-counter medicines tend to be rather more expensive than one might expect. Do not be confused by the many similar-looking establishments called “parapharmacies”; they don’t sell medicines but instead perfumes, soaps, toothpastes and all kinds of sweet-smelling lotions, usually at a lower prices than those found in a pharmacy.

But if life is getting you down and you fancy taking a break from it all, I urge you to buy medication from a French pharmacy and spend the next fortnight in a fog of blissful oblivion.

James Gascoigne

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Reader John Trew of Bangor (57 pubs and licensed premises), Northern Ireland writes:
Monsieur Gascoigne does the Irish a disservice when he writes that “almost every Irish village has a pub.” The “almost” is redundant; the definition of a village in Ireland is a community with at least one pub (some have six or seven). I, too, am impressed by the number of pharmacies in France; I’ve just returned from the remotest part of Brittany, where I found a pharmacy in a hamlet of no more than 12 houses. And no pub/bar either!”

Reader David Platzer of Paris writes: “Very nice James Gascoigne’s tribute to the French pharmacie. Your readers should be aware that this institution is now in danger, like so much else in this country since Nicolas Sarkozy’s election. Unlike the threat to the publishing industry and independent booksellers involved in the possible scuttling or amendment of the Loi Lang, the menace to pharmacies has received little or no attention in the press. I only learned of it from Madame Fitoussi of the Pharmacie de L’Estérel, blvd Davout, near the Porte de Vincennes – highly recommended to anyone in the vicinity.

“The goverrnment’s idea is to deregulate so that medecines can be sold in supermarkets and hypermarkets, just as in the USA and the UK. The personal touch would be lost. I live four M étro stops away from the Porte de Vincennes, but I often go to the Pharmacie de l’Estérel because I feel Madame Fitoussi is a friend. Recently, she found my blood pressure too high and insisted on calling my doctor herself to make an appointment. People who work in supermarkets are often nice but the conditions under which they work don’t favor the development over the years of attentiveness to their clients. Sarkozy seems to feel that every British or American development over the last three decades is to be emulated, so perhaps French residents from the English-speaking world should let him know that they have seen the future in their countries of origin and it doesn’t work. Or if it does, only at the expense of diminishing the quality of life.

“There was a demonstration about this in front of the Assemblée Nationale but it didn’t make Le Monde. I don’t know about the other papers.”

© 2008 Paris Update

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