Certain occasions call for a celebratory drink in the workplace – a colleague departing, a deal gone well or perhaps the end of a hard week. Yet from now on employees in France might have to rethink the way they mark such events. On 3 July, the Journal Officiel published a Decree stating that it will authorise employers in France to prohibit or restrict the consumption of alcohol on the premises.

The Decree allows employers to ban alcohol when its consumption “is likely to affect the safety and physical and mental health of workers”, giving employers the means to increase safety in the workplace through protecting health and avoiding accidents. The Decree does not envisage a blanket ban but leaves the extent of the restriction to the discretion of the employer.  Article R. 4228-20 of the Labour Code (Code du travail) already restricts consumption in the workplace to wine, beer, cider and le poiré (pear cider).  The Conseil d’état ruled in November 2012 that article R.4228-20 could not be used by employers to prevent the consumption of alcohol in the workplace altogether because any restriction or ban must be no more than “proportionate to the aim pursued”. Such aims are found in article L.4121-1 of the Code as “measures necessary to ensure the security and to protect the physical and mental health of the workers..”.  

It is therefore unclear whether the new provision will much change the current law. A restriction on alcohol must now be justified by the likelihood of its affecting “the safety and physical and mental health of workers”. How this goes beyond the employer’s existing obligation in article L.4121-1 to “ensure the security and to protect the physical and mental health of the workers..” is not obvious.

The Labour Ministry has justified its decision on the basis that alcohol is “the most widely consumed psychoactive substance” in France.  Inevitably there is some statistical scare-mongering at play – excessive alcohol consumption can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease and is contributing cause of around 49,000 deaths per year in France, according to the Gustave-Roussy Institute. The statistics on daily consumption of alcohol are also worrying – on average French adults consume 27 grams of alcohol per day, corresponding to approximately 2.7 glasses of wine.  However, while the evidence that repeatedly absorbing material quantities of alcohol is ultimately not good for you is irrefutable, it seems likely that the focus of the law would have to be at a much more specific level, based on the risks of each particular workplace.  It also remains to be seen how far it can be argued that the miniscule physical damage done by each glass is offset, or even more than offset, by the enormous psychological benefits of a convivial glass or two with your colleagues at the end of a difficult week/project. 

This strikes us as one of those legislative developments which everyone knows from the start will be widely, perhaps even totally, ignored unless and until there is a serious drink-related accident in a French workplace.  Then there may be a brief flurry of over-enthusiastic alcohol bans, but the likelihood of any long-term change in attitudes seems negligible.