Friday, February 02, 2007

Les Clopes get the Chop

France yesterday implemented the first stage of its workplace smoking ban, which will cover all offices, retail outlets, factories etc and will be followed in twelve months by a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. The news has been big outside of France where the clichéd image of the Gauloise-smoking Left Bank existentialist still holds some sway. The fact that the French smoke a lot less than most of their European neighbours (and their percentage of smokers is slightly less than the EU average) is something that armchair editorialists prefer to ignore. The previous Evin laws of 1991 - as Anglophone news sources have repeated tiresomely this week - were the most restrictive of their kind but were largely ignored, or at least in restaurants. The effect of the ban yesterday was difficult to gauge because, as in many other Western countries, most office workers have for a long time been forced to step outside for a puff anyway. The only people other than catering staff that could usually be seen smoking at work were less conscientious shop-owners.

The French claim that they will flaunt the ban (or at least the one in a year's time which will be more critical) just as the Irish did three years ago but, in reality the French are no more rebellious than we are when it comes to standing up to authority. It's true that collectively they can be formidable - if at times maddening - but on the individual level they are as conservative and docile as anyone else. Some of my students recently, upon being asked to sum up the French character, used the word 'individualist', at which I couldn't repress a smile. Well, maybe, in the words of Graham Chapman in The Life of Brian, they are all individuals. The well-known French attribute of je-m'en-foutisme (translated as 'I-couldn't-give-a-shite-ism') is less an expression of rebelliousness than a self-suiting creed of rudeness that is quickly abandoned when the user's self-preservation is threatened by it.

As for myself, I don't smoke and never have, though I have never banned it chez moi and many of my friends smoke as have a number of girlfriends. But I support smoking bans from a purely pragmatic point of view. With regard to smoking in pubs as a right, it ranks somewhere below picking one's nose in public as one I would be willing to fight to conserve. Vive la différence, as any lazy Anglophone hack writing about France would say.