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In much of the world, obesity is represented as an issue of personal responsibility.* By contrast, in France, which has a tradition of social solidarity through state-funded social programs, obesity is framed largely as an issue of corporate greed and social inequality. Whereas the US media frames obesity as an issue of individual responsibility—blaming obesity on bad choices and individual-level solutions—the French press is equally likely to discuss how social-structural factors beyond individual control, including poverty and food industry practices, lead to increased population weights as it is to blame obesity on individual-level contributors. Compared to US news reports, French news reports are more likely to discuss social-structural contributors (47 versus 27 percent) and biological contributors to body weight (25 versus 15 percent).
Previous research—drawing on interviews with key policymakers in France and in the UK and on policy documents and reports—likewise suggests that a social-structural framing of obesity has dominated the discussion in France. For instance, in an influential report commissioned by the government, two famous French nutrition epidemiologists prioritized the following socio-structural contributors to obesity: food supply, socioeconomic status, and lunches provided in public institutions, including schools, universities, and prisons. The report, which was released just before one of the authors—Serge Hercberg—was appointed as the first president of the French National Action Plan on Nutrition and Health (Programme national nutrition santé or PNNS), only mentioned nutritional information and education at the fourth position in the hierarchy…


The French news media has framed “obesity” largely as a product of corporate greed and social inequality. Yet, France has—like other nations including the United States—adopted policies that focus on changing individual-level behavior. This article identifies several factors—including food industry lobbying, the Ministry of Agriculture’s rivalry with the Ministry of Health and alliance with the food industry, and competition with other policy goals—that favored the development of individual-level policy approaches to obesity in France at the expense of social-structural ones. This case points to the need to more systematically document inconsistencies and consistencies between social problem framing and policies. It also shows that national culture is multivalent and internally contradictory, fueling political and social struggles over which version of national culture will prevail at any given moment.


  • framing
  • lobby
  • obesity
  • policy tools
  • public health
Henri Bergeron
Henri Bergeron is CNRS senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations, Sciences Po; co-director of the Health Department of Interdisciplinary Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policies; and scientific coordinator of the Chair in Health Studies. He is also the scientific director of the Executive Master “Management of public policies,” and of the “Management and Public Policy” track at Sciences Po’s School of Public Affairs. He conducts research on health policy and uses methods from the fields of sociology of public action and sociology of organizations to evaluate forces at work in policy-making processes.
Patrick Castel
Patrick Castel is research fellow at Sciences Po (Center for the Sociology of organizations). His research interests include decision- and policy-making in the health sector, and Organization and transformation of medical work in the context of evidence-based medicine, digitalization, and post-genomics. He is the co-author of Sociologie politique de la santé (2014) with Henri Bergeron and Le Biais comportementaliste (2018) with Henri Bergeron, Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, Jeanne Lazarus, Etienne Nouguez, and Olivier Pilmis.
Abigail C. Saguy
Abigail C. Saguy is Professor of Sociology at UCLA, with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Gender Studies. Saguy is the author of What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (2003), What’s Wrong with Fat (2013), Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are (Forthcoming 2020), and numerous scientific journal articles and op-eds. Saguy is currently studying—with Juliet A. Williams and with support from the National Science Foundation—how lawyers, activists, and journalists invoke the principle of gender neutrality to advance (or oppose) gender equality.
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