More than medicine
Insight into the role the French pharmacy plays in daily life and what makes it so unique
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.
WELL-BEING AND BEAUTY
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