Junk Food Leads to French Obesity

In the land of baguettes and good cheese, the consumption of chocolate bars, chips and soda is on the rise, and obesity is through the roof, at least by French standards.

More than one-third of the French are obese or overweight. A controversial memo submitted to the government recommends a tax increase on junk food to get the French back on the baguette track.

The memo from a government agency suggests raising an existing tax from 5.5 percent to 19.6 percent on products that contain too much fat, sugar or salt.

But would that deter families from buying chocolate bars, chips and soda? Not at all, says Paris-based nutritionist Dr. Arnaud Cocaul.

"The tax idea is rather stupid," Cocaul told ABCNews.com recently. "It is very difficult to say which product is good and which product is bad."

Even the Confederation Paysanne, an organization that defends traditional farmers and French-quality products, deemed the idea ludicrous. That opposition is surprising, given that the organization's flamboyant leader, Jose Bove, earned worldwide fame after he trashed a McDonald's restaurant and burned genetically modified corn fields in 1999.

"This is scandalous," the confederation's national secretary, Philippe Colin, told ABCNews.com recently, adding that it was "just another tax to fix the government's budget situation."

The government's health insurance department has a $13 billion deficit.

"You may forbid some products because they are deemed unhealthy, but you cannot raise taxes on them, especially now that the French are struggling with rising food prices," Colin said.

Inflation is one of France's top concerns, according to numerous polls. President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings have plummeted because of rising prices within the past months.

Shortly after French daily newspaper Les Echos leaked the memo, the budget ministry announced that it would forbid a tax increase on food, worried perhaps about angering voters even further. Still, the ministry added that at least part of this memo will be submitted to the National Assembly for approval.

The budget ministry also said the list of products that are too sweet, salty or fat has yet to be compiled.

Last year, the Parliament tried unsuccessfully to raise taxes on soda by 1 percent.

It may take months before the government sets up a plan to fight obesity, a Health Ministry spokesperson told ABCNews.com, but "fighting overweight and obesity is one of our priorities, and, to achieve that, the consumption of high-fat products must go down."

An estimated six million French are obese, and 14 million overweight. France has an overall population of about 60 million.

But the French still have a reputation for eating healthier than people from other countries.

Mireille Guiliano's best seller, "Why French Women Don't Get Fat," gave a few hints on how some of them manage to enjoy food and yet stay rather slim -- hints that include having vegetable-only lunches, taking long walks and eating small portions.

So why would French people go for a chocolate bar when they could have a delicious and warm croissant just coming out of the oven? Or why would they eat a hamburger when they could have a fresh baguette with fromage?

It is a matter of education and social level, nutritionist Cocaul said. "Obesity increases in France, but it does not equally affect all the social classes," said Cocaul. "Lower-income families, lesser-educated people and members of immigrant communities run higher risks of being overweight."

For some parents, sweets and chocolate are the only treats they can afford for their children, he said.

"The solution is probably more education," Cocaul said.

Children take on food habits at early ages, Cocaul said, and if their parents cannot set a good example for them, it is up to their teachers to teach them healthier eating habits.

During the week, "the French tend to eat faster and more often in front of their television set," Cocaul said.

But on weekends, "the French still like having quality-food dinners with friends and family," he said.

"The French get away with eating a lot of fat. They eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of wine, but they still manage to have very low cholesterol levels. That's the French paradox."