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Legal Drinking Age in France: What to Know?

Legal Drinking Age in France: What to Know?

It’s impossible to come to France without enjoying a good glass of red wine, an aperitif with friends on a terrace, and a craft beer! But are you wondering whether you’re allowed to enjoy a glass of Bordeaux on the banks of the Seine?

And what’s the legal drinking age in France? Then read this article.

It explains everything you need to know about the laws in force, the cultural codes you need to respect to drink like a true French person, and our national specificities compared to other countries!

Legal Drinking Age in France

Due to successive changes, the law on alcohol consumption is not always well understood. Even by the French themselves. But if you want to avoid fines, it’s best to obey the law about the legal drinking age in France!

Two French friends
Two French friends drinking @French Iceberg

What is the legal drinking age in France?

In France, the legal age for buying and consuming alcohol is 18, three years younger than in the U.S.!

Contrary to false information circulating on the Web, since 2009 the law on the drinking age has applied to all types of alcohol, whether beer, wine, or spirits. 

What does French law say about the drinking age in bars and restaurants?

In France, when you walk through the door of a bar, restaurant, club, or nightclub, you’ll see this prohibition poster plastered on a wall:

French law about the drinking age in France
French law about the drinking age in France

It explicitly states that the sale of alcohol is forbidden to minors under 18.

But let’s imagine you’re sitting on the terrace of a brewery with your 17-year-old child. Are you allowed to buy a beer and offer it to him? The answer is no. The second paragraph states that it is “forbidden to offer alcohol to minors”.

Can a minor consume alcohol?

While the legal age for buying alcohol in France is strictly controlled in public places, there’s nothing to stop younger children from drinking at home. And with good reason: by the age of 11, 6 out of 10 schoolchildren have already drunk alcohol, and 16% of 13-year-olds have been drunk!

Several European countries are much more lax than France. In Austria and Belgium, for example, young people can buy and consume alcohol from the age of 16. In Denmark, there is no legal drinking age.

Is it allowed to drink alcohol in parks and gardens in Paris and France?

Whereas in the USA, public drinking is largely restricted, in France it’s possible to drink in the street without being bothered by the police unless it causes a public disturbance (you mustn’t look drunk).

Drinking in a public space in France
Drinking in a public space in France @French Iceberg

So you can sit in a park with friends and have a quiet drink while playing a game of pétanque. That’s the French art of living!

What’s more, unlike in the U.S., where legislation varies from city to city, the law is the same throughout the country.

But if you’re planning to drive home after a night of drinking, don’t forget to take a breathalyzer test. Driving under the influence of alcohol is punishable by a fine of 750 euros and the loss of 6 points on your driving license (if your blood alcohol level is between 0.5 and 0.8 g/L)!

Alcohol consumption: France more flexible than other European countries

French legislation is much more flexible than many of our European neighbors for drinking alcohol in France.

In Spain, for example, drinking alcohol on the public highway is strictly forbidden. If you break the law on the streets of Barcelona, you can be fined up to 600 euros!

In an attempt to control public drinking, the Spanish authorities have created “botellodromos”, public spaces where large groups of young people (who have reached the legal drinking age) are allowed to gather to drink, often before going clubbing.

Read also: Legal Smoking Age in France: What to Know?

France vs. USA: How Do the French Drink?

Alcohol consumption in France and the United States is regulated differently, reflecting distinct cultural attitudes. Here are just a few of the French specialties!

The French and alcohol in 8 key numbers

  • One French person in ten drinks alcohol every day.
  • The average age of first binge drinking is 15 (well before the legal drinking age in France!).
  • Between 2017 and 2018, the French drank 27,000 hectolitres of wine!
  • 40% of French people have an aperitif at least once a week.
  • France is the world’s 4th largest whisky consumer.
  • The French drink 130 million liters of pastis every year.
  • Languedoc Roussillon is the region with the highest alcohol consumption in France.

The binge drinking

Wine is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in France. It’s common to have a glass of wine with one’s daily meal. Thanks to this cultural difference, the French are used to consuming alcohol in moderation.

Although Binge Drinking is on the increase among young people under the legal drinking age in France, the phenomenon is not as widespread as in the USA.

On the contrary, as American society is more puritanical and alcohol more taboo, it’s common to witness scenes of excessive drinking with the sole aim of achieving a high state of drunkenness.

We don’t drink alcohol just to get drunk

As you may have gathered, in France, the aim is not to get drunk as quickly as possible.

The French generally prefer to savor their glass of wine or cocktail without hurrying. They know they’ll gradually get drunker but in a more poetic way!

However, if you go to a nightclub, you’re likely to see young people consuming vodka “shots”, which is a practice very similar to binge drinking.

Read more: 40 Ways to Say Drunk in French

Drinking is good, eating is better!

In France, the land of gastronomy, food plays an important role. It’s rare to be served a glass of alcohol without being offered something to nibble on.

Whether it’s a charcuterie board, a cheese platter, or an aperitif cake, most pubs have a small menu to accompany your glass of wine or pint of beer. Some bars even provide free chips and peanuts to complement your drink.

The most common dishes are

  • Dry Saucisson (an essential French delicatessen specialty)
  • Cheese board
  • Olives
  • Tapenade (spread with olives, capers, anchovies, and olive oil)
  • Rillettes (a meat-based preparation cooked over low heat and then chopped into a sort of pâté)

The Aperitif culture (The French apéro)

In France, the apéritif (or aperitif) is an essential social ritual where people get together for a drink and appetizers before dinner. Here’s everything you need to know!

Apéro in France
Apéro in France @French Iceberg

A short history of the apéro

The aperitif is an ancient tradition with its roots in Egypt, handed down to us by the Greeks and Romans. The word “apéritif” comes from the Latin “apertivus”, meaning “to open”.

Originally used as medicine, apéritifs were initially reserved for the elite and for medical care. It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that aperitifs became popular in France, going beyond their medical connotations!

The apéro: a social ritual

Today, the aperitif (colloquially known as an “apéro”) is a moment of conviviality that precedes the meal. It’s an opportunity to get together with friends, colleagues, or family for a good time, to celebrate a promotion, a birthday, or some good news!

The apéro is not just an opportunity to eat and drink, it’s above all a moment of sharing and sociability essential to French culture. In short, the French apéro is the art of enjoying life!

What do we drink for aperitifs in France?

A wide variety of drinks can be enjoyed as an aperitif, depending on the place, time, and context. Here’s a short list of the most popular aperitif drinks among French people of legal drinking age:

  • Wine: a classic choice for aperitifs, whether red, white, or rosé. The choice of wine often depends on the season and the region.
  • Wine-based aperitifs: these drinks, such as Lillet, Dubonnet, or Vermouth, are often served with a twist of lemon or orange.
  • Beer: increasingly popular in France thanks to the boom in craft beers.
  • Whisky: this drink is also popular, especially in Brittany, which produces its own whiskies.

You’re invited to the aperitif: here’s what you need to bring

If you’re invited to an aperitif somewhere other than a bar, the tradition is not to arrive empty-handed. Everyone brings something to eat or drink:

  • Local French cheeses: Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, Chèvre, Comté, Reblochon, Époisses, etc.
  • Deli meats: Saucisson, Bayonne ham, pâté de campagne, foie gras, terrine, etc.
  • Toasts: goat’s cheese and honey, avocado, salmon, bruschetta, mackerel spread, quiches, savory cakes, etc.
  • Seafood: oysters, squid, shrimp.
  • Raw vegetables: cherry tomatoes, carrots, radishes, cucumbers. Eat them dipped in an herbed sauce like tzatziki, for example!

Sometimes there’s so much to eat that the aperitif replaces dinner. We call it an apéro dînatoire!

Rules of manners when drinking alcohol in France

If you don’t want to look like a bewildered tourist on your next visit to a Parisian bistro, you need to master the rules of the art of French tasting!

Making a toast in France
Making a toast in France @French Iceberg

How to drink wine like the French?

If there’s one thing the French are proud of, it’s their wine! In fact, it’s completely useless to know the legal drinking age in France, if you don’t know the rules of tasting a good bottle:

  • If you offer wine, always accompany it with something to eat.
  • If you’re not hosting the party, wait until you’re offered something to drink before serving yourself.
  • Traditionally, red wine is associated with meat and white wine with seafood.
  • We talk about wine in terms of its region (not its grape variety). For example, on a map, you’ll see a “Bordeaux”, a “Bourgogne” or a Côtes-du-Rhône. Each region is made up of several grape varieties, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Cabernet Franc.

“Toast” by looking everyone in the eye

In the United States, you greet the entire group with a single gesture before drinking. In France, whether there are 5 or 20 guests, you must “toast” each person individually!

And that’s not all. You have to look the person straight in the eye the moment your glasses touch and not cross your arms with anyone else, otherwise, you’ll have to do it all over again!

Because of an old tradition, some French people say that if you don’t look someone in the eye when you toast, you’ll have seven years of bad luck.

Drink slowly

The French don’t drink their wine, they taste it. That means taking the time to enjoy every sip.

If you rush to drink before everyone else, most French people will find it impolite.

Next, try to keep up with the pace of your guests: you shouldn’t finish your glass too much earlier than the others, so that you’re not the only one refilling.

How do you say “cheers” in French?

When toasting in France, just before the glasses touch, it’s customary to say a few words for good luck. The great classics are :

  • À la tienne !
  • Santé !
  • À la nôtre !
  • Tchin Tchin

Now you’re all set for your next trip to France! The law on the legal drinking age in France (18) is no longer a mystery to you. You know how to enjoy a bottle of wine like a true Frenchman, and you’ll never be caught short if you’re invited to an impromptu aperitif!

Translated into English by Sacha