French Friday #1


Ah, the ubiquitous chemist. No French high street is complete without a chemist. If you’re new to France you’d be forgiven for thinking the French are the sickest people on the planet. La Rochefoucauld counts two chemists on the high street, one up near Leclerc and one near the town hall. I bet there are others, secreted away. There are as many chemists as bakers.

I drove through Ruelle-sur-Touvre last night, to my Thursday evening client. In a 200-metre stretch, there are three chemists. You’d not think that they’d stay in business. They wouldn’t, of course, if they’d give you generic medicines. A packet of aspirin here can run to 3$ or £2 for 16. In Tesco in the UK, you can buy 16 aspirin for 16 pence. Plus, when you go to the doctor in France, it is an unwritten compulsory code that you must leave with three prescriptions. If you don’t get three, you are not ill. If you get six, you’d probably be coughing up a lung in the UK and get a prescription for a generic antibiotic. I’m not knocking the French health system at all. It’s incredibly good. It’s also expensive and the chemists have a stronghold.

Supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell over-the-counter medicines at reduced prices. This is why my mum posts me paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. What would cost me £2 in the UK can run up to 30€ here – the equivalent of £25 or so. That’s a big mark-up. The chemists went on strike again here just before Christmas. Chemists make a great salary and retire on an 85% pension, so it’s hard to be sympathetic. Money-grubbing bastards is what I’d say. What were they striking about? The supermarkets being able to sell over-the-counter stuff. Of course, they’ll sell generic versions at much lower prices.

The first reaction on a Le Figaro article kind of sums up my own feeling:

“Pharmaciens, dentistes, kinés : «La santé n’est pas à vendre» ???
Bien sur que si, et tous ces gens là sont d’accord pour avoir une part du gâteau la plus grosse possible. Quant aux soi-disant “conseils” des pharmaciens laissez moi rire … à moins que ce soit pour vendre la boite la plus chère … ce sont des commerçants spécialisés, mais commerçants tout de même !!”

“Pharmacists, dentists, physios: “health is not for sale”???
Of course it is, and all these people are in agreement over getting the biggest piece of the pie. And the so-called “advice” from the pharmacist makes me laugh… at the very least because it’s to sell the most expensive product … these are specialist shopkeepers, but shopkeepers nonetheless.”

I’m not sure I’m in agreement about the advice chemists give – in the UK, a chemist can (and should) be the first port-of-call for over-the-counter medicines. One comment below this said that if France becomes a nation of self-medication, everyone will end up addicted to meth (made largely with over-the-counter products for colds if Breaking Bad is accurate!!) It does very accurately capture the French paranoia about self-medication though. I’m not sure being able to buy decongestant in the supermarket will lead to wide-scale meth addiction.

Another person is (perhaps rightly) worried that supermarkets who feed ‘us’ horse-meat lasagne won’t be too bothered about getting the products right.

Others are worried that it will mean the end of the chemist and a monopoly of the supermarkets. I’m not entirely sure I agree that a few paracetamol are holding up the pharmaceutical industry in France – did the opening of chemist aisles in the UK lead to wholesale closure of chemists? As I recall, most supermarkets over a certain size used their space to open a deal with a local pharmacy franchise anyway. Probably more chemists opened in supermarkets than closed on the high street, though that’s just my opinion.

The final comment I read sums up my own feelings… it’s important for these reforms to go through so that the pharmacies don’t hold the French to ransom just to feather their own beds. An over-the-counter aisle certainly won’t stop me buying from the chemist as I already do, but it will put an end to my mother having to send me boxes of painkillers as if I’m some refugee. Cough sweets, certain tooth-pastes and general painkillers are all chemist-only materials at the moment in France, quite unbelievably. Surgical spirit, rubbing alcohol, peroxide, iodine, all chemist-only as well. When I wanted a bottle of surgical spirit for a science experiment with chromatography, you’d have thought I wanted to buy 200 packets of decongestant to open a meth lab in the hills.

“What are you going to use it for?” the pharmacist asked, with some dismay.

“Extracting the colour from leaves.”

“Why exactly do you want to do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know… to encourage curious minds???”

She was at the point of not letting me have it. I think she thought I was going to drink it or something, from my favourite park bench, or perform illegal heart surgery with black-market hearts from Nigeria.

I’ll translate my favourite reaction of all though:

“How are the pharmacists managing to complain with a mouth full of caviar???”

It’d be wrong of me to finish without paying tribute to the journalists and police officers who died on Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo. It definitely leaves this first French Friday with a depressing air. Sometimes, there just aren’t words.


4 thoughts on “French Friday #1

  1. Hi Emma – happy new year!
    Yes, we are always amused about how a village with zero infra-structure will always have a chemist’s ;o
    Of course, it has to be said they sell a lot of those pots and vials of beauty treatments that French women seem to find so necessary – and those cost a deal more than medicines…
    Funny that on-site the chemist’s seem expensive – to us from Switzerland, European chemist’s seem cheap for medicines. However, it’s the same to get stuff here – I had trouble buying a big bottle of lavender oil, with all the questions (though I didn’t have to sign for it in the end!!).
    And here, we distinguish between chemist’s that are medical (and hi-end cosmetics etc.) for prescriptions and medicines, which are “Apotheke”, and those that sell all kinds of homeopathic and other remedies as well as a lot of special organic stuff (“Drogerie”).

    1. Don’t get me started on heavy legs and the pharma-cosmetic industry in France. Apothecary stuff is already sold in the supermarkets – obviously pharmacists have no worries about the supermarkets stealing that line of business!

  2. It is interesting to read about drugstores in France. Here in Canada pharmacies sell all sorts of things but the actual medications and prescription drugs are sold by the pharmacist in a segregated area within the drugstore. You also have to get your prescription within the province. For instance I am for 2 months in British Columbia, I had to get medication for the extra 2 months in Ontario before I left. That was a bit of a hassle because the insurance won’t pay for more medication than for one month. Which means I have to pay for the full amount and then send in receipts to the insurance.

    1. That sounds like an endlessly complicated system! I admit I have been very spoiled by the National Health Service. It might not be slick and efficient like France, and it might be creaking at the seams, but there are no rules and regulations dictated by insurance companies.

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