PARIS — When she announced it to her parents, her heart was beating fast. Both mother and father tried to hide their disapproval, which gave way to worry and even feelings of guilt. What had they done wrong in raising her? Of course, they would still love her, and anyway they could probably count on this whim and phase ending at some point.
Ophélie Véron, now 29, remembers her "dietary coming out" as an earthquake for her French family.
Back when she was a 22-year-old student in political geography, this pretty dark-haired young woman with freckles announced she was a vegetarian. At 25, she became vegan, thus excluding any animal products from her lifestyle (food, clothes, cosmetics, …). It was a "very very difficult" position to defend, especially when your parents put so much love into traditional and local food.
"They just couldn’t understand it. It’s as if I had a mental illness!," Ophélie explains.
Her mother tries to underplay the family's reaction: "It wasn’t as if she’d joined ISIS or something," she quips. "But it was very strange, it cut her away from the others’ food, and so from us."
A 2012 Terra eco-OpinionWay study showed that about 3% of France's population had decided to give up on meat, fish and sometimes even milk and eggs. Since then, there have been many signs that the trend has accelerated, especially among young women. Business is booming for publishers with vegetarian and vegan cooking books, while trendy bloggers (including Ophélie, a.k.a. "Antigone XXI") concoct vegan dishes for their 20,000 regular readers. Vegetarian restaurants are mushrooming. Even major supermarket chains are starting to produce their own brand of vegetarian and vegan products.
"The trend has clearly gained pace in the last four or five years, especially among educated young urban people," says Elodie Vieille-Blanchard, a young math teacher and president of the Vegetarian Association of France. "We had 500 members in 2007, we now have 4,000." Among their 70,000 Facebook fans, Vieille-Blanchard says three out of four are women, and half of them are between 18 and 34 years old. On university campuses, some 10% of the students claim to be vegetarian or vegan. That’s 3% more than three years ago.
Beyond animal rights and a desire to eat healthy, a broader impulse seems to drive the rise in veggie-only citizens. "Young people no longer believe in traditional politics," says Cécile Van de Velde, a professor of sociology at Paris’ School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. "Since they believe that they can’t influence society as a whole, they change their own daily lives though local engagement and consumption, which becomes a lever for political action."
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Inside families, the "conversion" to the vegetal cult doesn’t always happen in harmony. The memory of that fateful moment is still fresh in everybody’s minds. "It was on my 17th birthday," says one, "April 5, 2014," says another, "While I was Christmas shopping with my mom," or "My New Year's resolution in ...," recall several. Reactions are not necessarily enthusiastic in the land of gastronomy — what about the sacrosanct family meal, Sunday’s roast leg of lamb?
Camille and Cécile, twins who became vegetarian when they turned 18, still remember their mother’s panic when they told her that they’d become vegetarians. "What are you going to eat then? You’re making our lives so difficult!" The two decided to help other young people in their dietary transition and created an online forum for vegan living.
"You’re being manipulated," was how the parents of 17-year-old Alexandre Rozenblum responded at first. Then came the coup de grâce, "It's just teenage angst!"
For 16-year-old Mary’s parents, the shock is still raw. "We couldn’t understand it," says her mother. "She used to love her meat rare."
There’s also some fear that such eating habits might lead to dietary deficiencies. And there’s only one thing the youths can do to alleviate those worries: promise they’ll go see a nutritionist and do regular blood tests.
But deep down inside, carnivorous parents never cease to hope it’s just a fad. Some even try the bacon-in-the-vegetable-quiche technique. Or all sorts of fish, before they finally admit the unthinkable: Even fish is banned.
As it becomes clear that the hoped-for fad is instead taking root, each meal becomes a war of attrition, with the never-ending barrage of wisecracks as weapons.
*What about when the carrots scream as they are pulled from the earth? Can't you hear that? (The father)
*Just because you’ve stopped eating meat doesn’t mean we’ll stop killing animals. (The older brother)
*You’ve clearly never known what it’s like to go hungry. (The grandfather)
*How will you feed your baby? (The grandmother)
*Will you serve bark at your wedding? (Uncles and aunts)
It goes on until it reaches the point of open conflict. "My parents love meat, they wouldn’t let go," remembers 24-year-old Margaux.
Valérie ended up playing the peacemaker between a "very angry" son and a "provocative" daughter. "She would tell him, as he was eating a steak, "You’re eating a dead animal," and they would argue …"
When parents come to terms with their child's choice, there’s still the issue with friends. It’s exhausting to always have to justify yourself, or to bring your strange sort of chocolate cake, without eggs or milk, to a dinner party.
Maëlle, 17, feels like a "burden" when going out with friends. "I don’t live in a big city, there’s no vegetarian restaurants. It’s always a hassle to choose where we’re going to eat."
If vegans like Maëlle are often seen as extremists, vegetarians are more and more common. For young people, to stop eating meat entirely can originate from a family environment where both parents practice "flexitarianism" (eating meat only sporadically). For Sophie, the fact that her 18-year-old daughter Lucie is a vegetarian is "the most advanced expression of the family’s stance," as they’ve almost entirely given up on red meat.
After his early teenage years spent eating kebabs, Nicolas Celnik — a high school senior whose mother is a vegetarian, whose father is not far from being one and whose sister is a vegan activist — joined the movement last year after he found out how cattle are raised and slaughtered. But there are side benefits beyond the ethics, he says: "There’s nothing quite like being a vegetarian to pick up girls."