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Absinthe will soon be legal again in France

19 October 2010 One Comment

French National Assembly, intellectual property of the French Socialist Party

France is a very peculiar case in terms of absinthe-related legislation: it is one of the the only countries, with the United States, where, while the nature of the product has been authorized for years now, selling it under the name “absinthe” is still prohibited. The law stating this said prohibition could well be soon repealed.

Detailed explanations after the jump.

The French ban on Absinthe

In its present form (the initial one being a bit too verbose and having been simplified), the law of March 16th 1915, of ill repute to French absintheurs, is written in these terms in its first article (the emphasis has been added by yours truly):
It is prohibited to manufacture, wholesale and retail, and the transport absinthe and similar liquors covered by Article 15 of the Act of January 30, 1907 and Article 17 of the Act of December 26, 1908 .
A decree will state the characteristics defining that a spirits should be considered similar liquor in the context of the present act.
Violations of this law will be investigated and established as fraud and forgery.
It can be split into three parts : nature of the prohibition, how the target of the prohibition will be defined, and the possible penalties* if an infraction is established.
Simple, concise, efficient.
Still, there are two important facts to be considered in order to understand France’s bizarre legal situation :
  • The prohibition to sell a product with the name “absinthe” is stated in a law.
  • The nature of the product which would be absinthe or something similar is stated in a decree
And that is where all the magic happens, because these two kinds of legal texts differ in nature. France applies the separation of powers in the following way : the government (President and Prime Minister mainly) hold the executive power, the legislature is held by the parliament, which is divided in two :Senate and National Assembly.
Decrees can be issued on a simple ratification by either the Prime Minister or the President. Consequently, the nature of absinthe-related spirits in the French law has sometimes been subject to quick and surprising modifications (that was the case recently, when the limitations on fenchone and pinocamphone were suddenly dropped).
That being said, reestablishing the name… That is another thing altogether. A law can only be repealed via another law, therefore to reestablish the mere name of absinthe, there has to be a law, going through the whole process (which will be grossly detailed later), ergo a vote by both the Senate and the Assembly, and both of them have a very busy calendar.

A tailor-made amendment

While monitoring closely our social news feed (in that case, Twitter), our attention was caught by a small remark from famous French blogger Authueil, who specializes in news from the parliament.  Translated here:
@Authueil Repeal of the prohibition of Absinthe http://bit.ly/cFRnrJ #simplification
And following the link, one can find the following amendment
The 27th of article 136 is written like follows :
“The law of March 16, 1915 as amended, concerning the prohibition of the manufacture, wholesale and retail, and the movement of absinthe and similar liqueurs”
Why is that strange and crafty text so full of hope ?
First of all, let us state it again : in the French law, only by another law can a law be repealed. Therefore, to repeal the law of Marchi 1915, there had to be either a dedicated law, or an element of a new law.
That is what this amendment is about. It modifies a current law proposal (currently being debated at the Senate) to add that the final law would repeal the law from 1915. Here is the “compiled” text, which would be the valid one at the time when we write these lines
Article 136
I. – Are and will stay repealed or suppressed :
1° Le décret des 22 et 28 juillet 1791 qui règle la couleur des affiches ;[...]
2° La loi du 21 septembre 1793 contenant l’acte de navigation ;
2° bis L’article 88 du code du domaine public fluvial et de la navigation intérieure ;
27° « The law of March 16, 1915 as amended, concerning the prohibition of the manufacture, wholesale and retail, and the movement of absinthe and similar liqueurs.
It is in a very slick way indeed that this small text, which will be dear to the heart of many absintheur, is inserted.

It is definitely looking good

Yet… Currently, we are still talking about a law proposal, and the current social context is very tense in France Two things would allow, a priori, not to put too much faith in it.
  • The amendment could be/could have been rejected
  • The law could be voted against
But then again… The people behind this nice trick played their cards well…
First of all, the amendment has been proposed by the French government, and the current parliament is in majority composed of members of the same party as the government (no surprise here, the former name of the party was “Union for a Presidential Majority”), which would prevent the amendment from being rejected.
And then, the law itself is not a source of conflicts. Its title is
This kind of law proposal is fairly common.
Still, let us not jump to conclusion. There is still a fair chance that this law is going to be analyzed with much scrutiny, since there have been major issues linked to this kind of law , for example a modification prohibiting the dissolution of the Church of Scientology in France.
But there is room for faith. And here at la gazette, we tip our hat to the person who designed this fine piece of legal skirmish. While there is no definite proof of it, our guess is Arnaud de Seniles, from Nixon Peabody, who has been a legal advisor on other absinthe related issues.
In the meantime, during the first round at the French Senate, the amendment has been adopted.

The Swiss IGP as a root cause

We would now like to bring your attention to the object (the goal or justification) of the amendment, and in particular, to the following sentence
Switzerland intends to file, as a geographical indication, the name “absinthe” in the context of the mutual protection of geographical indications currently being negotiated with the European Union.
Indeed, the root cause of this action is the Swiss IGP case. That means many things, and we could take the time to dig further once again, still, one has to notice the unexpected haste with which the French government took care of this case.
What may be read in the fine prints is that this law is mainly motivated by issues related to international trading (what else ?) et that it may not be the end of the talk. The amendment is clear : the goal is to protect the French “appelation” (name) and the related French industry.

So what ?

One can expect to see soon in France texts and means regulating what absinthe is on the French market (quite alike what is currently missing in the TTB’s definitions). We have been hearing some rumors that some French distilleries are already working on it.
We will soon try to learn more about it


The law has not yet be submitted to votes, and is still far from that step. Currently, it has been read a first time at both the Assembly and the Senate, with amendments added each time.
It still has to be voted at a yet undisclosed date at both assemblies. If both assemblies vote in favor of the same text, word for word, then the law passes, otherwise it has to go through a commission whose role would be to write a reconciliation proposal.
We would advise you to follow the legislative file. As for us, we will follow it closely, and will keep you updated on the details.
Our thanks go to Steve Williams for his help in translating this post.
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