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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 00:46 GMT
Bidding goodbye to the Gauloises
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

What could be more French than sitting in a cafe enjoying a coffee and a cigarette, watching the world go by?

A girl in a Paris cafe (file image)
Many find it difficult to imagine a Parisian cafe without the smoke

Not any more. The plumes of smoke that once wreathed the great thoughts of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, as they puffed away at the café Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank, have been banished by the chill winds of change.

France has imposed a ban on smoking in public places, so Les Deux Magots is now strictly "non-fumeur": a smoke-free zone.

That famous French chain-smoker Serge Gainsbourg once sang an anthem to the habit, entitled "God smokes Havana cigars".

Well, if He does, He will no longer be smoking them in this cafe nor in many others - and absolutely not in offices or government buildings.

Cafe philosophy

Perhaps surprisingly, the move is backed by a majority of the French, and even by a majority of smokers.

A woman smokes in Paris, France
People will be allowed to smoke in cafes until the end of the year
The French writer Olivier Todd was a friend of the late, great smoker, Jean-Paul Sartre, and remembers breathing in his philosophy along with the fumes of Sartre's ever-present Gauloises in Les Deux Magots and Cafe Flore on the Left Bank.

Yet, though he feels a pang of nostalgia for the old days, Olivier Todd believes it is time for France to change.

"Those who enjoy cigarettes after a meal or after making love can still do so. It's just that you won't necessarily be able to do so in a restaurant or cafe any more," he tells me, as he looks wistfully at his packet of cigarettes.

"So the ban in public places will not change things - we can still smoke in private. There will not be a revolution, a May '68 over cigarettes, that's for sure. And it will help people to give up."

French paradox

Monsieur Todd pats the nicotine chewing gum he now keeps in his top pocket as a substitute while in smoke-free areas.

A Paris cafe
This is supposed to be a place of pleasure where you can relax, and smoking is part of that
Gregory Bianchi, teacher

For this is a typical French paradox - smoking in public places such as airports, railway stations, hospitals, offices and schools is now forbidden.

But restaurants, cafes, casinos and bars have until December to allow their customers to get used to the idea of their morning coffee without their "clope" or fag.

Yet the owner of Les Deux Magots, Catherine Mathivat, the great-grand-daughter of its original "patron", says she was keen to ban smoking as soon as possible, and is glad to be getting rid of the smoke.

"It will be good for the employees," she says, gesturing at the smartly-attired waiters.

"They are always in a smoky environment, and they get bronchitis and other diseases because of it.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Smoking inevitably affects others, and that's the issue
Richard Evans, Leeds, UK

"A lot of writers used to come to Les Deux Magots and they used to drink a coffee or a glass of wine while they smoked, but I think that things have changed. The writers of today are not so addicted to cigarettes."

French identity

Her customers agree. Some 70% of the French support the ban, and, in these health-conscious times, customers at Les Deux Magots are appropriately philosophical about the change.

"People have started accepting the fact that smoking is not the thing to do. They have lost so many of their friends to lung cancer that they know that it means something," says Yves.

"I think it's a good thing - too many young people smoke. The ban is good for everyone," insists Rene, himself a smoker.

But in a cafe across the river, the Sarah Bernhardt on Place du Chatelet, there is at least one Frenchman willing to defy the ban on smoking in public places.

Teacher Gregory Bianchi looks around, rolls a cigarette and defiantly lights up.

"I believe in the right to fresh air, but I believe that it's also a right to smoke in a public place," he says.

Referring to the cafe - which will have until December to ban smoking - he says: "This is supposed to be a place of pleasure where you can relax, and smoking is part of that. They should have smoking restaurants and bars, and non-smoking restaurants and bars. That would be fair."

From today, thousands of French police will have the right to stop and fine smokers they catch flouting the ban, with a penalty of 68 euros or just under £50.

Nearly 16 years after his death, Serge Gainsbourg may be turning in his grave, as a little spark of French identity is finally extinguished for the greater good of the Republique's health, as France finally ends its long love affair with the cigarette.


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