“God smokes Cuban cigars,” Catherine Deneuve sang more than 25 years ago in a song that’s still famous here. The cigarette is part of our international image, alongside the baguette and the slenderness of French women.
The reality is different, though. True, the French smoke a bit more than Americans, but we smoke somewhat less than some of our European neighbors, like the Austrians, the Greeks and the Dutch.
What is more notable is that the French have lagged in the West’s antismoking fight. America is at war against cigarettes. Ireland and Norway banished them in public spaces in 2004. They were soon followed by Italy, Spain, Sweden and Britain.
But things are changing here. Last year, the government decided to act. Prohibiting smoking in public places shows resolve to the voters, after all, a majority of whom favor banning cigarettes altogether.
Banishing tobacco is easier than solving the problems of the slums or reducing unemployment among young people. In October 2006, six months before this year’s presidential elections, Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin issued a decree that barred smoking in public places (government offices, schools, hospitals and the like), starting in February 2007. Cafes, restaurants and nightclubs received a reprieve until Jan. 2, 2008. So, beginning on Wednesday, smoking will now be allowed only in sealed rooms that meet strict standards.
Sixteen years ago, France was the pioneer of the West’s antitobacco fight with its Evin law, which required no-smoking areas in restaurants and cafes. But this law has been routinely ignored, in the way the French usually do with laws that displease them. Thus, France is, for a few more days, one of the last countries in Europe where you can smoke in public while you eat and drink.
Will the new prohibition be respected? Is this the end of the traditional morning cigarette savored with coffee at the bistro? “We’ll see,” some say, ready to bet this ban will have no more effect than the first.
The state, after all, profits from a laissez-faire attitude toward smoking. France has imposed high taxes on tobacco: 80 percent of the sale price of a cigarette pack (the average is five euros, or about $7.35) goes into the state treasury.
These taxes bring in more than 10 billion euros a year. Isn’t it shocking to earn money by taxing what is properly called a drug? The government responds by saying that the money subsidizes the social cost of tobacco, a plague that causes about 65,000 deaths a year in France. Lobbying by the multinational companies that dominate the French market (the biggest is Altadis, a French-Spanish company, followed by Philip Morris and British American Tobacco) also has something to do with the French tolerance of tobacco.
But others fear that smoking in public will become increasingly difficult. Although a prohibition on smoking in bars and restaurants will be harder to enforce, the ban in hospitals, schools and other places that began in February has been widely obeyed. Our Italian neighbors are also very punctilious about respecting their antismoking legislation, which went into effect in January 2005.
When he goes to Italy, the French writer Michel Houellebecq, an inveterate smoker, is obliged to meet with journalists in his hotel room. Cigarette in hand, he is now persona non grata in the lobby, at the bar, in the restaurant.
For simple economic reasons, the French smoker could rapidly become an endangered species. French cigarettes are among the most expensive in Europe, their price rising ceaselessly since 1991.
But some will always resist the antismoking campaign and manage to buy cheaper cigarettes. The black market is flourishing, and cartons of cigarettes bought on the cheap across the border circulate widely. On my trips to other countries, I have begun the custom of bringing back a carton for one or another of my smoking friends.
“Another blow to the enemy!” is the ritual phrase that greets this gift. In France, smokers tend to consider themselves as members of the resistance.
Resisting the dictatorship of health and the dictates of hygienic standards: vive la liberté of smoking! And everyone knows that in France, nobody has made jokes about liberty since the Revolution. Shall we start depicting Marianne, the emblem of the Republic, with a cigarette in her mouth.
Corinne Maier, the author of Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay. This article was translated by The Times from the French.