More than medicine

In­sight into the role the French phar­macy plays in daily life and what makes it so unique

Living France - - Contents -

Wan­der around a French town or vil­lage and you will inevitably see a flash­ing green cross bolted to the wall above a shop front, in­di­cat­ing the pres­ence of a lo­cal phar­macy. A corner­stone of France’s revered health­care sys­tem, not to men­tion the beauty in­dus­try, the phar­macy is in­cluded in the ba­sic ameni­ties you will find in ev­ery medium-sized town and even in some rel­a­tively small vil­lages. In fact, there are some 23,000 of them across the whole coun­try.

As in the UK, phar­ma­cies in France de­liver pre­scrip­tions, over-the-counter med­i­ca­tion and other health-re­lated prod­ucts, but there are some dif­fer­ences that make French phar­ma­cies so much more than just a chemist. Whether you’re look­ing for home­o­pathic reme­dies, skin­care prod­ucts or even ad­vice on mush­rooms, it’s all read­ily avail­able when you visit the French phar­ma­cie.


For some years now, there has been a short­age of GPs in the more ru­ral parts of France. You might hear the term ‘ désert médi­cal’ to re­fer to these ar­eas where there is no GP surgery for miles. There­fore in some parts, phar­ma­cies are the only place where res­i­dents can go for med­i­cal ad­vice if there is no doc­tor’s surgery nearby and, in fact, many French peo­ple will talk to their phar­ma­cist be­fore go­ing to their GP.

Phar­ma­cies, or of­ficines de phar­ma­cie (the of­fi­cial word­ing for a phar­macy), are an es­sen­tial part of the com­plex French med­i­cal sys­tem. As men­tioned above, the phar­macy is where you pick up med­i­ca­tion or med­i­cal equip­ment pre­scribed by a doc­tor. It is also where you hand in your brown feuilles de rem­bourse­ment, the forms that al­low you to claim the cost of med­i­ca­tions back via so­cial se­cu­rity.

Laws 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.

You can even find out whether those mush­rooms you picked are safe to eat or not. Phar­ma­cists in France are also trained to iden­tify cer­tain fungi, and you can take your mush­rooms along to the phar­macy for them to check your col­lec­tion for any poi­sonous va­ri­eties – free of charge.


Above all, phar­ma­cists are there to en­sure pa­tients take the med­i­ca­tion they have been pre­scribed in the right way, ei­ther by in­di­cat­ing the cor­rect dosage and how of­ten it should be taken, or by pre­par­ing medicines them­selves. With six to nine years of stud­ies re­quired to be­come a phar­ma­cist in France, they are highly trained and very much the ex­perts in terms of med­i­ca­tions but are also in­volved in re­search, ed­u­ca­tion and pub­lic health.

At the end of their stud­ies, phar­macy stu­dents in France are given the ti­tle ‘Doc­teur en Phar­ma­cie’ be­fore tak­ing an oath called le ser­ment de Galien, in­spired by the Hip­po­cratic Oath. They can then work in a reg­is­tered es­tab­lish­ment. As such, much of their med­i­cal knowl­edge is sim­i­lar to that of doc­tors so, just like in the UK, it is worth go­ing to a phar­macy for mi­nor health con­cerns such as colds, in­stead of spend­ing time in the doc­tor’s wait­ing room only to be told to try non­pre­scrip­tion reme­dies.

In some cases I’ve come across, phar­ma­cists also give out more nat­u­ral reme­dies, par­tic­u­larly for mi­nor ail­ments, as a sup­ple­ment to tra­di­tional medicines. These may be an­cient reme­dies pro­duced from in­her­ited ‘ re­cettes de grand-mère’, which of­ten in­volve drink­ing hot, plant­based in­fu­sions that cure any­thing from sore throats to in­di­ges­tion.

I still re­mem­ber a phar­ma­cist I went to see in Paris when I was strug­gling with a bad cold. After ask­ing me sev­eral ques­tions about headaches, cough­ing and other mu­cus-re­lated is­sues, she popped some syrup, a nose spray made of nat­u­ral es­sen­tial oils and a box of vi­ta­mins in a bag. As she handed me the bag, she added: “You must drink plenty of flu­ids, have some hot wa­ter in­fused with lemon and honey – it’ll help your throat – and get plenty of sleep.”

Hav­ing said that, how­ever, the French tend to rely heav­ily on medicine as a cure for any­thing that may be even slightly wrong with them. French peo­ple value their phar­ma­cist’s opin­ion. The French value per­son­alised care when it comes to their health and re­ally do trust

phar­ma­cists – some­times more than their doc­tor! In turn, phar­ma­cists, par­tic­u­larly in small com­mu­ni­ties, will get to know peo­ple well and en­quire about their health when they visit. Be­ing in a phar­macy is a more per­sonal and re­laxed ex­pe­ri­ence than a visit to the doc­tor, per­haps be­cause it is not con­fined to the ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment of a surgery but in a bright, friendly shop.


French phar­ma­cies are far more than a place to pick up a pre­scrip­tion. ‘ Para­phar­ma­cies’ are some­times in­de­pen­dent but are usu­ally in­cor­po­rated within a phar­macy and they sell any­thing that doesn’t need a pre­scrip­tion, from tooth­brushes and cleans­ing lo­tions to pills made en­tirely of nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents such as plants or roots.

Phar­ma­cists will of­ten ad­vise pa­tients to take a nat­u­ral rem­edy – cran­berry pills or camomile tea, for ex­am­ple – along­side pre­scribed med­i­ca­tion for re­cov­ery and preven­tion pur­poses. Homeopa­thy is much more recog­nised than it is in the UK and French phar­ma­cies are treasure troves of home­o­pathic treat­ments.

Whether or not some of these nat­u­ral and al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies are ef­fec­tive, one thing is cer­tain – the pas­toral care and ad­vice given by the French phar­ma­cist plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in the well-be­ing of their cus­tomers.

French women have long grav­i­tated to­wards the phar­macy for ton­ers and ton­ics as much as they have done for med­i­ca­tion, and this re­flects a dif­fer­ent ap­proach which fo­cuses on health and nat­u­ral beauty rather than aes­thet­ics. In French phar­ma­cies, you’ll find an ex­ten­sive range of beauty and skin­care prod­ucts from brands such as Nuxe, Vichy, Avène and Bio­derma, and at cheaper prices than in the UK. Look out for sales ad­ver­tised in the phar­macy win­dow so you know when to go in and stock up.

There is very much an em­pha­sis on nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents, and the health el­e­ment of these prod­ucts is im­por­tant to the point that there’s a min­is­te­rial de­cree in France that sets out which ones can be sold in phar­ma­cies.

When I en­ter a French phar­macy, it feels dif­fer­ent, like I’m let in on some se­cret that only the French hold the key to, a unique knowl­edge that stems from a com­bi­na­tion of sci­ence and tra­di­tion.

Is the recipe for the French je ne sais quoi that many peo­ple envy found in phar­ma­cies in France? Who knows. I’ll def­i­nitely be tak­ing an empty bag with me on my next trip back to France though to stock up on my es­sen­tials…

Sophie’s lo­cal phar­macy in Aux­erre DID YOU KNOW? Only phar­ma­cists can own a phar­macy in France and own­er­ship is re­stricted to one phar­macy, which is why there are no chains AV­ER­AGE POP­U­LA­TION PER PHAR­MACY: 2,892 *source Euro­pean Phar­ma­cists Fo­rum

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