News from the French (smokers) Resistance

Help Support Brothers of Briar:


May 12, 2008
Reaction score

France's recent ban on lighting up in cafes has backfired so badly that the law may not survive.
By Stephen Clarke, LA TIMES
May 28, 2008

I'm walking through St.-Germain-des-Prés enjoying the sights and sounds of springtime in Paris. The men are ogling women's uncovered legs, the city's new public bikes are swishing along the sidewalk knocking pedestrians into the gutter, and the cafes are full of chattering smokers.

Smokers? But wait a minute, wasn't smoking in cafes and restaurants outlawed in France on Jan. 1?

Yes, there's a big sign on the door of one cafe informing its customers of the 68-euro fine for lighting up. There's even a huge pictograph of a crossed-out cigarette for Parisians too rushed to read. But the air is thick with the blue smoke of a dozen cigarettes as people enjoy their morning coffee with a side order of nicotine.

Typical, you might think, this blatant French disregard for the law. But you'd be wrong, because they're managing to smoke in a cafe while obeying an anti-smoking law.

Welcome to France.

As of the first day of 2008, any cafe or restaurant that wants to allow people to smoke on its premises has been obliged to install a fumoir, or smoking room. However, the specifications for the fumoir's thick walls, automatic closing doors and air extractors are so draconian that no one has bothered. In fact, they don't need to because it is perfectly legal to smoke on the terrace of a cafe or restaurant. And a terrace is defined as a place outside the premises that is not enclosed by solid walls and a fixed ceiling.

Suddenly, cafes that used to plonk a few tables on the sidewalk have created "terraces." It's been a great few months to be an awning salesman.

For most of the winter, Parisian smokers huddled in these thin-walled, canvas-roofed spaces and filled them with as much smoke as ever. You can almost feel French politicians shrugging -- we have imposed this law, what else do you want us to do?

No-smoking areas used to be a sham -- three or four tables in a corner close to the bar where everyone including the barman stood and smoked all day. I once asked if a restaurant had a nonsmoking area and was told by the waiter, "Not specifically -- it's mixed." He wasn't joking.

Now, though, things have changed, and people have been flocking to eat in places where they wouldn't have dared venture before. Bar owners quoted in the media express astonishment that mothers dare to come in with their children.

There have, however, been some less positive developments. One has been dubbed the cafe basket, or "sneaker coffee." Someone goes up to the bar, orders a drink, consumes most of it and then says he's just nipping outside for a quick cigarette. At which time, he runs off without paying. Bar owners are getting wise to this and are checking out the footwear of their customers. Sneaker-loving American tourists should not be surprised if they are eyed with more than usual suspicion in French cafes.

The second negative effect of the anti-smoking law is far more worrying, especially now that summer is coming.

Although smokers may have found refuge on the terraces, they're not particularly happy to be there. In the past, many of them used to prop up the bar, playing the lottery, eyeing the barmaid. But French cafes usually apply three price scales -- for the bar, the salle (main room) and the terrace, where drinks are at their most expensive, no doubt to compensate the waiter for having to walk so far to take orders.

So now the cafe terraces are full of smokers who are very angry at being overcharged and want to make full use of their costly terrace time. They puff nonstop, not only between courses but often while they're actually eating.

Before the new law was introduced, it was possible, as a nonsmoker, to lean across to the next table and say something like, "Excuse me, I respect your right to smoke, and I have nothing against le tabac -- some of my best friends are in rehab for nicotine addiction -- but I would appreciate it if you could hold your burning cigarette a few centimeters farther from my plate so that I can taste this rather expensive meal I've ordered. Oh, and merci beaucoup in advance for your humanitarianism."

In 50% of cases, this used to work. These days, forget it. You'll only provoke a tirade about how smokers are being bankrupted, not only by the collapse of the world banking system and the rise in oil (and therefore tar) prices but by the sudden doubling of their drink prices. Your meal will get cold long before the rant ends.

It's a tragic irony -- the sun is out, the canvas roofs of the French cafe terraces are off, and just when you want to sit by the sidewalk for some fresh air and people watching, you need a gas mask.

And there's one final French twist to the story.

In fact, the anti-smoking rule is not actually a law. It's a decree, meaning that instead of being passed by Parliament, it was simply a regulation imposed by the government.

So, come the next election, if President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to make a populist move, he can repeal the decree. The hard-line smokers will trudge -- slowly, because of their impaired lung capacity -- to the polling stations, and he will win a second term.

Given his low approval ratings, he might do it. So those of you who just went online to buy shares in French awning manufacturers and outdoor-heater companies, put a note in your diary to sell before election day in May 2012. You can then reinvest in le tabac, of course.