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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Last smoke for French cigarette factory

By John Laurenson
BBC, France

Anybody who has been a cigarette smoker has a place in their heart for the distinctive French cigarettes Gauloises and Gitanes. They seemed so glamorous, conjuring up the heady world of film stars. However, times change and the last factory still making the cigarettes in France has closed down. John Laurenson finds out why.

French actor and singer Charles Aznavour
French actor and singer Charles Aznavour smoking dark cigarettes
For as long as most of us can remember, the French have been smoking Marlboro Lights like everybody else.

Smokers of Gauloises and Gitanes, the usually un-tipped, dark tobacco, trade-mark cigarettes of France have, quite literally, been dying out.

But still it came as a bit of a shock to hear that the last French factory making proper French cigarettes was closing down.

The firm will keep one plant going - in Spain - because, these days, the Spanish smoke twice as many French cigarettes as the French themselves.

The employees of the last domestic factory, in Lille in the north of France, had seen it coming for some time.

Health care

There had even been a 'struggle' as the trade unionists like to put it. But now there was just a red flag and a loud-hailer left lying around and some stickers saying 'non'.

It was not so much global capitalism that did it for France's last Gauloises factory but the imperial expansion of preventative health care
The French voted down a European Constitution they saw as a threat to French workers and their way of life.

The last French Gauloises factory could have been a "cause célèbre" but people here simply did not want to vote for lung cancer and severe respiratory disorders. That would have been a 'non' too far.

And it was not so much global capitalism that did it for France's last Gauloises factory but the imperial expansion of preventative health care.

In the past three years, the government has raised cigarette prices by about 50% to discourage smoking.

And, to show they mean business, they have hit French cigarettes especially hard, making them as expensive as the rest.

Sales have dropped by a quarter. Smoking is now often banned in workplaces and trains. Even restaurants, where not so long ago it was not rare to see people eating and smoking at the same time, are now sometimes smoke-free.


The cigarette workers' wives came to the farewell drinks at the factory dressed in flowery summer dresses.

For most of them it was the first time they had been to the place where their husbands had been clocking in every day of their working lives.

Drinks were set out on Formica tables.

It was a grim party. Four hundred and forty seven jobs gone in one of the most depressed and job-scarce corners of a depressed and job-scarce country.

And while we are in depression-mode let us just mope a little about the demise of the French cigarette. The packets first of all. For Gauloises, it was squashy and covered with scrunchy cellophane.

The Gitanes packet was stiff and cardboardy. Both were shades of blue like the smoke they produced or so said the poets - it always looked white to me.

And both were graced with a simple and unforgettable picture.

For Gauloises, it was the helmet of Vergcingétorix, the Gaulish warrior who battled against the Roman invaders.

For Gitanes, the smoky silhouette of a gypsy dancer - the body only partly concealed by a public health warning.

Designer brands

Soldiers and gypsies. Artists and statesmen. In the glory days, everybody smoked. And, if you were French, to smoke was to smoke Gauloises or Gitanes.

French cigarettes were a great leveller. They brought emphysema and gum disease to rich and poor alike with true republican égalité
The Americans and the British smoked light tobacco - "blondes" or blonds, as the French call Virginia cigarettes.

The French smoked "brunes" - brunettes.

And more than anything made by Chanel or Givenchy that real French blondes and brunettes dabbed behind their ears, the pungent, unmistakable smell of dark tobacco was the perfume of the country.

The French had for a long time made tobacco their business.

It was France's ambassador to Portugal, a certain Jean Nicot whose name would be immortalised by the word nicotine, who introduced tobacco to the French court in the 16th Century.

It would, he said, be good for the Queen's migraines.

In the following century, tobacco became a State monopoly. As it still is today, the property, in theory at least, of every man, woman and child in the country.


French cigarettes were a great leveller. They brought emphysema and gum disease to rich and poor alike with true republican égalité.

But outside of France, what really caught the imagination of the world was that these were the smokes of intellectuals.

America had Humphrey Bogart with his worldly-wise put-downs and his un-tipped Chesterfields.

France had the writer and philosopher Albert Camus, a soccer-playing, existentialist lady-killer who, like Bogart, looked undressed without a cigarette.

If Camus has a modern day counterpart, he is the novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Though perhaps neither as physically or philosophically attractive as Camus, Houellebecq is, like the author of The Plague, political, controversial, burdened with the malaise of his age - and a heavy smoker.

But, as the melancholy trade unionists at the Gauloises factory in Lille will tell you, even Houellebecq smokes blonds.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 22 September, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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