In London they say you are never far from a rat. In Paris you are almost certainly the same short distance from a rodent as you are from a pharmacy. And from any single pharmacy you can probably see two or three others, their large neon green crosses winking at you seductively from all angles.
French pharmacies sell prescription and non-prescription medicines along with herbs and homeopathy and a curious array of unproven products that would fit neatly into a charlatan's briefcase: pills to give you a tan, pills to make you slim, pills to rid you of cellulite, pills to cure baldness, miracle face creams, to name but a few. French pharmacies are usually arranged so you have to ask for what you want. You cannot pick a product off the shelf, as in Boots or Superdrug in Britain, you have to say: "I would like something to cure the boil on the back of my neck", or "I need something for the pain in my wherever." Of course you can guarantee as you ask this there are at least a dozen other people behind you in the pharmacy and the girl behind the counter goes: "Quoi?" so you have to raise your voice. In the end the whole street, because you can also guarantee all your neighbours are there too, is looking at the back of your neck or knows you are going home to stick something up your bottom because she has also waved a huge box of suppositories in the air as if she has just produced them from a hat and expects applause.
French people are generally on good terms with their local pharmacist. They are like the old family GP. You go tell them your symptoms and they recommend something. If it needs a prescription they will point you to the nearest doctor. Sometimes, if they know you and you are a good customer, they will give you the drug without a prescription on the basis that you will produce it later. I am on good terms with my local pharmacist, even though once when he should have given me a darning-size needle for an injection I had to give myself, he popped one the size of a crochet hook into the bag. When I returned in a panic he at first insisted it was the right size then said in any case he had no others so I had no choice.
Now French pharmacists are protesting because the government plans to let them stock common over-the-counter medicines in the shop as opposed to behind the counter. Note, there are no plans to allow supermarkets or petrol stations to sell cough medicine as they can in the UK, but just let the chemist shops put these and other products on their shelves. The change, which is pretty feeble by most people's reckoning, is considered radical by French pharmacists. It is aimed at opening certain everyday medicines up to competition to force prices down. In announcing the measure, France's health secretary actually used the words "a significant reduction in retail prices" - in French - prompting the pharmacists to take out full page ads in the national press. Apparently they are concerned the general public is far too stupid to know whether to self-medicate even paracetamol or ibuprofin or aspirin and as we will not know what to take, when or how much even though it is written the the box, they say the government's proposals are a threat to our health. I don't think we are that stupid. We know what it means when a group of people in the business of selling something starts being overly concerned about us, the buyer. It usually means they are more concerned about themselves.