There’s been so much hullabaloo, or as the French prefer to say polemic, here recently over the introduction of a total smoking ban in public places, that you could be forgiven for thinking that much of the population is about to man the barricades and storm the Bastille.
The most important element in the new law – which is due to come into effect on New Year’s Day is its “totality” because in true French style there has in fact been a partial ban in operation for the past 10 months. But while airports, railway stations, hospitals and offices all stopped smokers from lighting up, cafés, bars, restaurants and discos were given a period of grace to get their act together.
At the heart of the polemic has been the perceived threat to the traditional image of smoke-filled bars with crusty old French geezers sucking away on revolting Gauloises. Or even more horrifically the big cultural shift (at least in the eyes of those abroad) of a country whose cafés have apparently long been the haunts of fag-dangling-from-lips artists and philosophers.
Now anyone caught lighting up in contravention of the new regulations will face a maximum €450 fine, while café owners and the like, who might be tempted to turn the proverbial blind eye to someone puffing away on their premises, could be required to cough up €750.
The French of course are a notoriously individualistic lot. If their reaction to seat-belt laws or drink-driving regulations are anything to go by the ciggie police could have quite a job of enforcing the law. Children for example can often still be seen rocking around unattached in the back of cars and many New Year revellers seem more than willing to take the risk of driving home well oiled.
And let’s not forget that there has actually been a legal requirement to provide specific smoking areas in bars and restaurants since 1991, which would lead any sane person to assume that non-smoking areas were also compulsory. But this being France, many proprietors (and as a result their clientele) ignored it completely, side passed the legislation and designated the whole of their premises being as “smoking”.
A recent march in Paris of more than 10,000 protestors – mainly tobacconists – could not change lawmakers’ minds, although the rather jolly health minister, Roselyn Bachelot, displayed a touch of humanity for which this government is so renowned, by announcing that smokers will be able to puff-in the New Year without fear of having a fine slapped on them.
The new ban does not include pavement tables or open-air terraces – yet – so perhaps we can expect to see the nation’s baccy addicts hazily huddled together on street corners inhaling diesel fumes alongside their nicotine fix.
While kicking the habit might be hard to legislate, statistics indicate there is work to be done. Official figures show that around one in three French over the age of 12 are regularly regular smokers, and more than 66,000 a year die from smoking related illnesses (including around 6,000 who have never smoked).
And if the Italians, Irish, Spanish and British can all do it, why can’t the French?
Toulouse – Gare Matabiau - [image: Toulouse – Gare Matabiau] This is the Gare Matabiau in Toulouse (the city’s main train station), circa 1900. A very interesting picture – at l...