Smoking no longer très chic in France
Jean-Paul Sartre smoked. So did Colette, Cocteau, Camus and Coco Chanel.
One of the most memorable scenes in French films is Jean-Paul Belmondo lifting his head, dragging on a cigarette and rubbing his thumb back and forth across his lips in “Breathless.” (He smokes about two dozen times in the movie.)
There is something about smoking that seems very French.
But as in other European countries, smoking in public increasingly has fallen out of favor here. This week, after a five-month governmental inquiry, a parliamentary committee approved a proposal to ban smoking in public areas.
Under the measure, cafes, hotels, restaurants, discos and casinos could designate spaces for smoking only if they could be “hermetically sealed areas, furnished with air-extraction systems and subject to extremely rigorous health norms.”
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said he would decide quickly how to proceed on the matter. “The French people would not understand if we do not make a decision” in the face of the research, he told members of Parliament on Monday.
But not everyone here agrees. To diehard smokers and many tobacconists and bar and restaurant owners, the campaign reflects the loss of a core French value — the rights of the individual.
“I see this as a personal attack,” said André Santini, a center-right member of Parliament from a Paris suburb and compulsive cigar smoker, who posed for photographers this week in the tobacco kiosk in the National Assembly building. “What disturbs me is the ayatollahs you meet everywhere. They tell you how you have to make love, how you have to eat.”
At the end of the year, the kiosk will no longer sell cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos, only candy and newspapers. Just as bad, he said, smoking will eventually be banned in the high-ceilinged corridors of the National Assembly itself.
“I’ll end my life where I started it — in the men’s room,” said Jean-Pierre Balligand, a lawmaker from eastern France. “I started smoking like every other schoolboy, in the toilets of my junior high school. And that’s where I’ll end up, in the toilets of the National Assembly, while the school principal, Mr. Debré, screams at us for smoking.”
The “school principal” is Jean-Louis Debré, the president of the National Assembly, who ordered the ban on the sale of tobacco products inside Parliament to “set the example.”
France’s history with tobacco goes back more than four centuries. Nicotine, after all, is named after Jean Nicot, a 16th century ambassador to Portugal who took tobacco leaves imported from America to Catherine de Medici as a cure for her migraines.
But France was also in the forefront in the anti-smoking movement in Europe, passing the toughest legislation on the Continent in 1991. Smoking was banned in most public places, including restaurants, except in designated areas. Tobacco products were required to carry health warnings. Cigarette advertising was banned in 1993. But there were loopholes, and application of the law has been uneven. The new measure is even stronger by making it difficult — and expensive — to create separate smoking areas.
President Jacques Chirac, who at one time smoked up to three packs a day, declared a “war on tobacco” in 2003 and imposed steep tax increases on cigarettes. Today, nearly 80 percent of the French support the idea of a smoking ban in public places.
Still, about 12 million of the French — about 20 percent of the population — are smokers, according to official government figures, and more than 70,000 people die in France every year from smoking-related illnesses and secondhand smoke.
Smoking remains particularly prevalent and acceptable among young people. French public high schools routinely allow students to smoke during breaks.
Maison Prunier, the landmark Art Deco oyster-and-caviar brasserie in Paris, still sells high-end, after-meal cigars to its clientele.
But even its managers believe that a ban might not be a bad thing. “We serve gourmet meals, so it’s unfortunate that cigars are smoked here,” said Benoít Rade, one of Prunier’s maîtres d’hôtel. “Smoke is a problem for most of our employees, some clients, too. A client can abstain from smoking for one hour or so. It will be much nicer.”
La Coupole, the vast, classic Paris brasserie whose trademark once was a haze of smoke, imposed a near-total smoking ban on its own initiative last July in anticipation of a government decree.
The new campaign to ban public smoking follows smoking bans of varying degrees — and varying degrees of opposition — throughout Europe.
Italy’s ban on smoking in public places last January was met with fierce public resistance, including a campaign for a national referendum to overturn it and the publication by newspapers of lists of smoker-friendly restaurants. One movie theater showed a Mexican film called “Nicotina” and offered free admission for customers who showed up with a pack of cigarettes.
Many French businessmen predict serious disruption of their businesses and a decline in profits. They certainly (since this is France) would demand compensation.
“There is going to be considerable damage,” said François Attrazic, the leader of the leading restaurant and hotel owners’ union and a restaurant owner (and occasional smoker). “We haven’t assessed how much it will be because it’s complicated, but we are hearing things from the countries that have bans, and what it shows is a drop of 25 to 30 percent in sales in some establishments.”
The issue was so divisive that Mr. de Villepin postponed a decision last spring, asking his health minister, Xavier Bertrand, to carry out a “deep evaluation of the different solutions.” Mr. Bertrand, who has long advocated a measure to protect people from secondhand smoke in public, said last week, “My conviction is that it’s necessary to ban tobacco in public places as soon as possible.”
Once Mr. de Villepin announces his decision, it is expected to be issued as a sort of government-ordered amendment to the existing law. That will prevent the Parliament or a lobbying group from trying to block the ban, which would go into effect sometime before next September.
Some anti-smoking politicians want to take their campaign further. Charles-Amédée de Courson, a center-right member, last year introduced a proposal in the National Assembly to ban the sale of chocolate cigars, arguing that young people who had consumed them were twice as likely to smoke.
Yves Contassot, a deputy mayor of Paris, meanwhile, recently floated a proposal to start fining smokers who threw their butts on the street.
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