PARIS — They invaded France with supermarkets and le fast food, they started packaging wine in boxes, and now, if marketing men have their way, even the Gallic tradition of wine sipping may be destroyed by le long drink and other alcohol aberrations.
The French are setting aside wine goblets and taking up the range of refreshments that Americans discovered long ago.
"France has seen trends almost exactly opposite to what happened in the United States," said Olivier Desforges, marketing chief of Societe des Vins de France.
"In France, the wine market is shrinking. Fewer people drink wine. Those who drink it drink less."
Surveys picked up the evolution of French tastes in the mid-1970s when there was a dramatic drop in wine consumption. In the 1950s, the average French adult drank 53 gallons of wine a year. Now the annual intake is 33 gallons.
That is still 15 times the American average of 2.2 gallons and almost as much as the world's leading wine drinkers in Italy. But "the French wine market here will keep on shrinking," Desforges said.
Enter the salesmen.
A decade ago they peddled whiskey as a fashionable alternative to wine. Sales of whiskey doubled from 1971 to 1981. Whiskey was a la mode for the upwardly mobile while wine continued dropping about 7% a year.
Now a new trend has taken hold. The French are trying out low-alcohol drinks, and the major drink companies are giddy with delight.
Low- or no-alcohol drinks are the in thing, said Denise Lecler-Boisset, deputy director of the government's committee on alcoholism.
"They are trying to do to drinking what McDonald's did to eating," she said. "They are trying to capitalize on the trend away from wine to dethrone Coca-Cola. The trend to spirits has been reversed."
New soft drinks, ready-bottled mixtures of beer and lemonade and other low-alcohol "coolers" made with fruit base are booming. Light drinks are up to about 10% of the market.
In 1983, Pernod became the first major French firm to try to capture the low-alcohol market with its Pernod Light 20%-alcohol drink.
"We had to overcome the problem of the complete novelty of a low-alcohol product," marketing director Michel Boinet said. "It is proving more difficult than we thought."
Licorice-flavored Pernod is traditionally a "southern, lazy, Mediterranean drink," but the firm wants to develop a "young, upwardly mobile, sophisticated market" for Pernod Light.
Last year its sister organization Pernod-Ricard burst on the market with Brut de Pomme, a sparkling equivalent to potent apple cider but with less than 1% alcohol.
Brut de Pomme has "surpassed all expectations," with summer sales 24% higher than forecast, said Denis Berthu, its publicity director.
French wine producers want to elbow in by trying to convert the French to another strictly American idea--light wine.
One firm, Chantovent, has just launched a light red wine. Moet et Chandon, prince of Champagne producers, hopes to sell 2 million bottles of its sparkling new white Pierlant Imperial next year. Its sales pitch? Only 9.5% alcohol, compared to 12% for Champagne or as much as 14% for red wine.
In the current French mood, fitness and health are popular and heavy drinking is not. But even enthusiastic marketing experts agree the image of the French sipping full-bodied red wine in a cafe is not yet ready to die.
The statistics show the French wine market tending not to light wines but to better-quality wines, said Deforges of the Societe des Vins, France's second-largest wine seller.