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Defense de Fumer

02/21/07 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) The unthinkable has happened, and commentator Mike Martin is considering the impact of a new public smoking ban on French culture.

(MARTIN) My wife and I had just got off the plane last summer and had taken up positions around the baggage carousel. We were staring at the conveyor belt with our fellow passengers when, all of a sudden, fifty people took out cigarettes and lit them in unison. It was 7:30 am, and we were suddenly plunged into a fat cloud of smoke. My wife gave me the look she saves for cretins and jerks and then shot out, "What are they doing! They can't do that!" Seeing she was upset, I intoned gently, "Um, Honey, we're in France now...."

For us Americans, smoking seems as French as berets and baguettes, or the Can-Can and Camembert. I mean, just think of all of those French icons who would have looked funny without a Gauloise between their lips. Would Django Reinhardt have been so debonair? Would the French Resistance fighters have been so jaunty and defiant? Would Jean-Paul Sartre still have been an existentialist? Would Brigitte Bardot have lost her beauty to wrinkles so quickly, so tragically? Even if we know it's a clich , it's hard for us to imagine the French without cigarettes.

And yet we're going to have to give up that cultural stereotype now; since February 1st, it's against the law to smoke in public in France. The French don't smoke that much more than we do - about one in three Frenchmen smoke compared to our roughly one in four Americans - but they've always seemed adamant about defending their right to smoke. Even non-smokers have seemed to worry about a ban leading to more puritanical restrictions. Some feared anti-smoking laws as the first step towards a sanitized society. You know, "First they took my smokes, then they came for my unpasteurized cheese."

Still the change has been coming - in fact the new restrictions are mostly a strict application of a sixteen year-old law, la loi Evin. And Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin did try to improve enforcement about a year ago, but he got distracted by massive street riots. And the government did put a twenty percent tax on a pack of cigarettes as far back as 2003.

But now that several other European countries have banned smoking in public, the French had to crack down or risk looking hopelessly behind the times. M. de Villepin has just announced that nicotine gum and patches will be covered as part of the universal health plan.

I imagine it will be strange for the French at first, giving up the whole smoking thing, and it might be hard for us to let go of that stereotype too. But, then again, isn't it weird to think that one of our Presidents, an actor, used to smoke Chesterfield cigarettes for a famous advertising campaign? I guess people change, and sometimes countries do too.

But don't worry about the French changing too much yet - the law has a loophole that allows smoking in restaurants and cafes until 2008.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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