Observers of the French medical scene may be struck by an apparent paradox. France is a major producer and consumer of nonconventional remedies, and by certain measures its use of alternative medicine ranks among the highest in Europe. Yet France stands out even among the countries of southern Europe, which have been less willing than those of the north to tolerate medical activities outside the norms of official biomedicine, for its institutionalized hostility to unsanctioned forms of medical practice. This situation has deep historical roots, which this essay seeks to reveal.
Although it would be premature to attempt a full synthesis of a subject that remains largely unexplored, this account will offer a preliminary survey of the development of alternative medicine in what might seem an uncongenial environment. France was far less fertile soil than the United States or Germany for the growth of organized unconventional medical systems, movements, and institutions. Yet alternative medicine flourished there in different forms, and the very disadvantages under which it laboured contributed to its characteristic pugnacity and may even have enhanced its public appeal.