MIDWAY: Au revoir to cigarettes

Like Asterix’s village holding out against the Romans, for years France proudly resisted the global craze for smoking bans.

It held out longer than Britain, Spain or Italy, but last week it finally bid au revoir to cigarettes in bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs.

This was not a decision taken lightly. Magazines ran nostalgic photo-spreads reminding us that French people look seriously cool with a cigarette in their mouth — as illustrated by Charles de Gaulle, Brigitte Bardot and the ambassador for nicotine-enhanced thinking, Jean-Paul Sartre. Even president Nicolas Sarkozy — painfully image-conscious — posed for Paris Match wrestling with a fat cigar.

But just a couple of days after the ban was imposed, on the Left Bank where Sartre once lit Simonede Beauvoir’s cigarettes with impunity, France’s traditional “cafe-clope” — morning coffee and cigarette — was now only possible by braving freezing temperatures or pavement heaters that singe your hair off.

“This is imbecilic,” said Jean-Yves Oussedik, a historian, puffing his pipe outside the literary cafe Les Deux Magots. “A complete ban is ridiculous.” Outside Cafe de Flore, once the smoke-filled retreat of existentialists, advertising student Sonia Bourezma, 27, wondered if all this

non-smoking stuff wasn’t just a touch too American.

“But in reality people will do what they’re told.” Banning smoking might be American, but judging by the public’s positive response — studies before the ban showed 70% support - it will be just one more US trend embraced by French society. Even among the diehard smokers in tiny tabacs, no one wants to risk a fine. At Le Quebec tabac, since the ban has been imposed, butchers and grocers obligingly finished their coffee before smoking on the doorstep.

Barman Jean-Michel, dressed in leather waistcoat, cowboy-style shoelace tie and handlebar moustache, spluttered: “This country is a dictatorship! When people were sick of their kings, they cut off their heads.” Was he anticipating a smokers’ revolt? “No,” he said calmly. “People will respect it. I’ll do what I did at school. I’ll smoke in the toilets.”