When I lived in the US, many of my friends had specific diets. Some were flexible, others not so much. So I wondered about being vegan in France. Since I’m not vegan myself, I asked Quentin, founder of Merci Vegan to help me with this article.
My aim is to give you an honest and realistic view of the French vegan scene and list French vegan vocabulary which could be useful to my vegan followers who travel to France.
1 – French Vegan Vocabulary
- Vegan: végan, végane.
Two pronunciations are common in France for “végan” – either a nasal “an” sound at the end, or like in English, more of an “ann” sound – this one is becoming more popular.
The féminine “végane” has this “ann” sound so if you chose this pronunciation, both masculine and feminine will be pronounced the same way.
Note that the first part of the word has a “é” sound, never an “i” sound like it does in English. So… v-é-g-a-n
- Veganism: le véganisme
- Beans: les haricots (m) – not as common in France as in other countries. We do have them, and in some regions “les haricots” are a specialty. But they are often cooked with some animal fat… If you come to Paimpol, check out “les cocos de Paimpol” – our very own bean specialty :-)
- Fruits : les fruits (m)
- Vegetables : les légumes (m)
- Legumes : les légumineuses (f)
Be careful between “les légumes” et “les légumineuses”, these are false cognates!
- Seeds : les graines (f)
- Tofu : le tofu – usually pronounced with a “ou” sound.
- I am vegan: je suis végan(e)
- I am vegetarian : je suis végétarien, végétarienne
- I do not eat (red) meat : je ne mange pas de viande (rouge)
- I do not eat fish : je ne mange pas de poisson
- I do not eat eggs: je ne mange pas d’oeuf
- I do not drink cow milk: je ne bois pas de lait de vache
- I do not eat dairies: je ne mange pas de produits laitiers
- I do not eat animal products: je ne mange pas de produit qui viennent des animaux
- I eat vegetables and legumes, nuts, grains… all cooked with olive oil, and of course fruits… Je mange des légumes et des légumineuses, des noix, des graines… le tout préparé avec de l’huile d’olive, et bien sûr des fruits.
I went to the “biocop” today, a shop which sells all kind of organic products and asked them to double check this list. They agreed and added that some people say “je mange veggie” (pronounced with hard G, like v-é-g- i, not like “veggie” in English) to say they eat vegan.
2 – What is Veganism?
Since I don’t know much about the specifics of being vegan, I asked Quentin of Merci Vegan what veganism meant. He answered: “veganism was first used by the Vegan Society, and the definition was:
a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals – for food, clothing, or any other purpose.
In other words, being vegan means first and foremost having a diet without animal products.
It means no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy products, no honey.
Vegans oppose the violence and cruelty involved not only in food, but also in cosmetics, clothing, and other areas like entertainment (zoo, circus…)”.
So being vegan is not only a food choice but a way of life.
3 – What Does the French Word “Végétalien” Mean?
“Végétalien, végétalienne” translates as vegan in English. But it’s a sub-category: people who eat like vegans but don’t necessarily adhere to the other restrictions such as not wearing leather or wool.
The word “vegetalian” is starting to appear on the web but has not yet made it in the English dictionary.
4 – Flexitarian, Vegetarian, Vegetalian, Vegan?
- A vegetarian does not consume animal flesh. So no meat, cold cuts, fish, seafood…
- A vegetalian does not eat any animal product. So no meat, cold cuts, fish, seafood – and also no eggs, dairy, honey…
- A vegan wants nothing do to with anything that exploits animals, in their diets (so all of the above) but also for clothing (no leather, fur, wool), and hobbies (they don’t support zoos, a circus with animals, brands that test on animals…)
- A flexitarian is… flexible… They are aware of their diet and the impact it has on the planet and the animals, and they follow mostly one of the above diets, with some exception which is unique to each person. I’ve heard people say “I don’t eat anything with a face”: meaning they ate eggs, dairy but no meat or fish.
If you are a flexitarian, you may be interested in my article about “how to say white and dark meat in French“; I was talking to a semi-vegetarian student who said “je ne mange que de la viande blanche”. I then answered, guessing something was weird “so, you eat veal”??? “Nooooooo” she answered, horrified. “Only chicken and seafood”.
5 – How Many Vegans in France?
As I said above, when I lived in the US, I had many friends who were vegetarians and even knew a couple of vegans.
In France, I don’t know any vegans. I know a couple of people who don’t eat red meat, and people who follow a very flexible vegetarian diet. But no vegan.
So when I asked Quentin about the spread of veganism in France, he said: “nowadays, veganism is a huge trend in France. More and more people get vegan: 5% of the French population does not eat fish and meat, and approximately 30% is flexitarian, which means that they barely eat meat and fish”.
I was really surprised by this statement. “5% of the French population does not eat fish and meat ?” That I can believe… but that doesn’t make them vegan.
So how many vegans are there in France? I searched the internet but couldn’t find a clear number.
It is clear that animals rights are a more pressing question nowadays. More and more people seem to be conscious of their food choices, the impact on their health and the planet, and try to be respectful of other people diets.
Yet, I don’t know if I would agree that “veganism is a huge trend in France”. Is it trendy to be vegan in France nowadays? Maybe… I’m not even sure!
6 – Veganism in France – Cities Versus Countryside
We carried on talking about the options for vegan eating in France. Quentin wrote:
“If most restaurants have vegan options, a lot of 100% vegan restaurants have appeared in big cities in France recently. ”
I have to strongly disagree with the first part of this statement. I would actually venture to say the contrary: it’s my impression that most French restaurants don’t have a vegan option, and many don’t even have a vegetarian option.
And I think that’s where we ran into a big misconception… Quentin lives in Paris. I live in Paimpol, a small city in Brittany. We have “crèpes” and a lot of fresh fish and seafood, so we have many options for people who eat vegetarian or don’t eat red meat.
But if you are vegan and wanted to eat out in a restaurant in Paimpol in the winter time (when there are a lot less fresh vegetables since most of the vegetables here are seasonal). Pffff… Good luck to you! You might find salads on the menu but most of them will contain some animal product (like a “salade périgourdine”).
So it’s my experience that a lot of people writing about being vegan in France write from the perspective of very large cities.
In big cities, you have all sorts of people and diets: people who eat halal, kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian… And so you have to adapt to the diet of all these people.
You also have a lot of produce, in season and out, access to all kind of “exotic” food such as yam, all sorts of dry beans… In Paimpol, it’s even hard to find fresh cilantro sometimes!
Not to mention all the ethnic restaurants: Mexican, Mediterranean or Indian cuisine may be more adapted to a vegan diet.
As a big restaurant chain, you also have to take care of your image, and show that you care (even when you don’t): so many larger chains have vegetarian – even possibly vegan – options.
As a small restaurant, in a big city, there are enough customers for you to go into a niche market such as vegan cuisine.
But it’s not the case in most places in the French countryside! Countryside restaurants tend to serve typical French food, and apart from the traditional “salade de crudités” (veggie salad), a lot of the French cuisine relies omeat-basedse dishes…
I’m not saying you won’t stumble upon an incredible vegan restaurant in the heart of the French countryside. But it will be the exception, not the norm.
7 – Veganism in France
Now, what do French people think of a vegan diet? I can’t tell you for sure. I haven’t interviewed all French people! But since I had planned to write this article, I asked around me: my family, my friends, people at the gym, restaurant owners, people at the organic farmers market… It makes for a good conversation at parties anyway!
My impression is that in France, a vegan diet is unfortunately still frowned upon. French people tend to think it’s too extreme, and that it deprives the person of the pleasure associated with food. Furthermore, lots of French people would have no idea what to cook for a vegan.
The stories I heard the most were about vegan customers complaining at restaurants, refusing to eat anything that has been in contact with meat or fish, and being very angry that there was no acceptable food option for them. Unfortunately, if I’m pretty sure this sort of reaction is not the norm, and most vegan people are certainly very polite and try to be as accommodating as possible, one bad experience goes a long way to hurt the vegan reputation.
8 – What Should Vegan Traveling To France Do?
If you are vegan and travel to large French cities, you should have no problem.
As Quentin said, many vegetarian restaurants have opened up in larger cities, there are also many ethnic food restaurants, and many have vegan options.
The problem is more if you travel to the countryside, in small cities or villages, or are invited to eat at French homes where people are not vegan themselves.
A – Being Invited to Eat at a non-vegan French home
When staying over with French people, you can’t really ask them to learn how to cook vegan for you. For most French people, a vegan diet would be a huge stretch. Honestly, before I did the research for writing this article, I would have been really puzzled if I wanted to offer a home-made cooked meal to a vegan. Olivier and I are foodies: Olivier is a great cook and we love to share this with our guests, cook French specialties for them, make them discover our favorite dishes. Food is a big part of our lives – maybe too big some could argue! But my point is that it would be difficult to adapt our cooking to a vegan guest, and maybe too much to ask – depending on your relationship with the person who invites you.
My advice would to either offer to cook something vegan for everybody if the invitation is relaxed and casual, or bring your own dish.
Since French people usually really like to cook, asking a French person to serve you a tomato salad and whole grain bread for lunch is going to make most French people uncomfortable: they need to feel they’ve cooked something good, but may not be ready to bend over backwards to meet your diet requirements. I know, it’s not logical: your French host wants to please you, yet may not be able to make the necessary effort to do so… They want to please you but yet do what is natural to them!
Bringing your own dish may fly… or not. It depends on the individual and how formal their food routine is…
So, in any case, it’s going to be a bit complicated for the French, so don’t assume having a specific diet is a normal thing everywhere in France. On the contrary, French politeness dictates that you should be willing to try anything, and eat whatever is being offered to you. And finish your plate!
B – Vegan in the Countryside of France
In the countryside, finding restaurants that have vegan options may prove to be a challenge. Even more so in the winter time when there are much less fresh seasonable vegetables available for salads. My advice would be to inquire in advance and see if the cook would agree to make a vegan dish for you (make sure you mention that butter is also an animal product, French chefs tend to be lost without butter!)
Instead of saying what you don’t eat, give clear examples of what you do eat.
Don’t expect them to have tofu or things like that.
Go for the “regular” ingredients such as vegetables, potatoes, rice, lentils, fruits… and ask if they could make a vegetable salad, or fry rice with olive oil and vegetables… Something simple.
Renting an apartment with a kitchen so you may cook some of your meals and not entirely rely on eating out would also make a lot of sense.
9 – Conclusion About Being Vegan in France
Being vegan in France is nowadays still something quite rare, not always accepted or understood.
In larger cities where there is so much access to all kind of produce, and all sorts of restaurants, you should have many options to eat vegan. However, in the countryside, in smaller cities, and when invited over at French people’s home, someone who eats strictly vegan would have to understand this diet may be problematic.
Now, France is a great producer of wonderful fruits and vegetables, and French breads are renowned (so are French wines) so, there is no reason why a vegan could not have a blast eating in France. But it may take a bit or planning…