Things about France that surprised me: the importance of la Pharmacie

I’ve previously mentioned that one of my least favourite places is the pharmacy, any pharmacy. This is largely because of the queues. It’s not the volume of customers but rather the amount of time taken to deal with each one and their myriad of purchases, going through the pros and cons of all the products on offer. Yes, the advice of the pharmacist is keenly sought, never more so than over the last few months, by the hypochondriac-prone French.

The pharmacy is a cornerstone of France’s (quite rightly) revered healthcare system, not to mention the beauty industry. You’ll find at least one in every small town and even in some relatively small villages. On the French Riviera, we seem (to me) to have one every 100 metres! In fact, there are around 21,000 pharmacies across the whole country. In some places, pharmacies are the only places where you can go to for medical advice if there’s no doctor’s surgery nearby and, many French will talk to their pharmacist before visiting their GP.

Laws currently regulate where you can buy medication and medical equipment, and most of these can only be prepared and sold by a pharmacist. Pharmacists are also authorised to prepare medicines for specific conditions or for other medical establishments such as hospitals. But this exclusivity is under threat.

The reverence with which the pharmacist’s advice is held carries over from medical to beauty products. While I’m waiting in one of those interminable queues I might get to overhear a conversation between customer and pharmacist with the latter’s weighted opinions on, say, the correct moisturiser. It’s rare to see anyone question the authority of the pharmacist or even their lieutenants: no-nonsense, white, lab-coated salesladies. They’ll analyse skin problems and lead you to anything from mink oil face cream to Homéoplasmine, a waxy balm traditionally used to soothe nursing mothers’ chafed nipples, a great remedy for chapped lips, to Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentré, the well-priced and truly wonderful face cream with the disconcerting name. A number of these products have achieved cult status in the skincare industry and are now available globally.

Elaborate pharmacy window displays change according to the seasons. At exam time, their windows will be full of ads for, and boxes of, things that I’ve truly only seen in France: memory pills, anti-snoring tablets and, of course, pills and supplemental regimes for le fatigue. This year these have been replaced by anything and everything to help ward off COVID-19. Prevention and protection have been the key themes.

After exams, comes the summer holidays and everyone wants to have beach-ready bodies. So the pharmacy will showcase slimming remedies, anti-cellulite pills, pre-bronzing capsules, gel for “heavy legs”  – the last one is something I’ve only ever seen in France. What are heavy legs? All the French women I know have enviably slim, svelte legs.

Come autumn, pharmacy windows are full of fascinating fungi charts. Autumn is wild mushroom season bringing in cèpes, girolles, chanterelles and the sinister sounding trompettes de la mort (trumpets of death) – all of which are edible. This is one of the more important functions of the French pharmacist. They are all required to study mushroom taxonomy as part of their training and provide the service of examining your basket of foraged fungi and oint out any that are not edible.

Alas, as with many other icons of French culture, such as cafés and bistros, the pharmacy as it exists today is under threat. Firstly from parapharmacies, often within supermarkets, which can discount heavily, and online – an ever- growing channel. The current government has floated the idea of deregulating pharmacies, which pharmacists worry will allow supermarkets to also begin selling over-the-counter drugs and which will also potentially allow corporations to buy up the typically owner-run pharmacies. The highly personalised service would be just one casualty of that model, they say. To protest, they upheld another French tradition: they went on strike!