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Why Is France Having a Cow Over Meat?

Counter-productive culture wars are a trans-Atlantic phenomenon.
September 7, 2022
Why Is France Having a Cow Over Meat?
(Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

A French politician has ignited a fracas, or should I say, contretemps, over men barbecuing meat. Lest you think culture wars are an exclusively American preserve, leading members of the French political establishment have been exchanging barbs over whether the French male’s attachment to his sizzling steak must be abandoned for the sake of the planet.

Sandrine Rousseau, a member of the Green Party, rose to her feet in parliament to declare that “we have to change our mentality so that eating a barbecued entrecôte is no longer a symbol of virility.”

Hoo boy. The land that gave us the terms “steak frites” and “boeuf bourguignon,” to say nothing of “filet mignon,” erupted. “When the grotesque reaches its climax” exclaimed Gaullist Eric Ciotti on Twitter, begging to “Stop the madness!” French talk shows and headlines are buzzing about l’affaire barbecue, reports the New York Times, with some political alignments you wouldn’t necessarily have predicted. Fabien Roussel, the general secretary of the French Communist party (yes, inexplicably, it still exists) offered that: “Meat consumption is a function of what you have in your wallet, not in your panties or your underpants.” He had previously courted controversy during the presidential campaign by saying “A good wine, good meat, good cheese, that is French gastronomy.” He was accused of xenophobia.

Rousseau’s beef is that French men consume 59 percent more meat than women, and cattle farming is a notoriously climate-unfriendly practice. Raising livestock is responsible for an estimated 15 percent of human-caused greenhouse gasses. Okay, but rather than examine whether men might also consume more eggs, fish, and vegetables than women (they are, on average, about 15 to 20 percent bigger after all), she went straight for impugning masculinity. “If you want to resolve the climate crisis, you have to reduce meat consumption, and that’s not going to happen so long as masculinity is constructed around meat.”

And she’s surprised that men recoiled? Listen, of all the activities to slander, grilling steaks for your family and friends ought to rank pretty low. Don’t we want men to do more of the cooking? As for virility, there are thousands of ways to “construct” (she’s clearly a postmodernist) masculinity that are far less benign than standing around a hot grill with tongs. Would it be preferable for them to buy muscle cars? (Definitely bad for the environment.) Or have affairs? Or start bar fights?

Some female choices are also harmful to the environment. Cosmetics, for example, can harm wildlife when they leech into waterways. Women are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of all beauty product purchases. If a male environmentalist noted this gender differential, he’d be accused of misogyny.

Let’s assume the unthinkable and posit that men do eat more meat than women even accounting for body size. Sacre bleu! How about not blaming them, not judging them, not assuming that they are working out their masculine identities by getting splattered with grease, and simply looking for alternatives that they will enjoy?

Meat alternatives like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat patties are plant products engineered to taste like meat. They’re already being served at fast food restaurants and are available at many supermarkets. And lab-grown or cultured meat is coming. It’s meat that is grown in vitro using actual animal cells. While it’s not yet on the market, it soon could be with a little investment. While these methods aren’t yet able to make a filet for grilling, the technology could first be used to supply a goodly share of ground beef. That would mean far fewer cows being grazed, lower greenhouse emissions, and no one having to give up their summer barbecues. (Another benefit of cultured meat is that it would dramatically reduce antibiotic use and thereby diminish the global problem of antibiotic resistance.)

The point of environmental activism should be to find practical solutions to climate change that do not demand huge lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes are not necessary and in any case will not happen. People already know that eating too much red meat is bad for their own health, not just for the planet’s, and yet they have shown no ability or willingness to cut back. There are, thankfully, other paths to a more secure and green future including aquaculture, desalination, nuclear power, and agricultural innovation. The French are in the vanguard in one sense because they already get 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power. Because of that wise decision, the carbon footprint of the average Frenchman is a little more than half that of the average German. In a sign that reality is beginning to intrude, Germany just announced that it is keeping two of its three nuclear power plants operational to cushion the blow from decreased Russian supplies.

We can embrace human ingenuity and innovation or we can point fingers at men who like to barbecue. Clémentine Autain, a Rousseau ally, objects that “There’s a difference between the sexes in the way we consume meat, and people who decide to become vegetarians are mostly women. So if we want to go toward equality we have to attack virilism.”

Actually, you don’t have to attack anything, you have only to open your mind and imagination to real solutions.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].