From International Herald Tribune:
Will the smoking ban in France mean the end of café society?
By Jon Frosch
December 18, 2007
PARIS: Every day after work for the past 15 years, Luz Sarfati has made her way to a café down the block for a glass of white wine and a cigarette. It is, for her, one of life's most pleasurable routines.
But as of Jan. 1, Sarfati will have to find a new way to unwind. Less than one year after France imposed a nationwide ban on smoking in most public places (including hospitals, schools and offices), it will extend the ban to bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs - and the most cherished of all spaces: the café.
Though smoking in outdoor seating areas will still be allowed, the option doesn't appeal to everyone. "I don't know what I'll do," said Sarfati, who is 65. "Probably drink quickly and then go home to smoke."
While many smokers find the ban in cafés unthinkable, polls show that 66 percent of the usually feisty French support the law and those who don't have mustered little resistance. Coming on the heels of Starbucks and Sarkozy, smoke-free Parisian cafés are perhaps the latest indication of a country slowly shedding its traditional skin - albeit not without anguish.
"All my customers smoke, all my employees smoke. What are we going to do?" wondered Olivier Colombe, 43, owner of Parisian cafés Le Panier and Le Faitout.
For Colombe, the new ban poses practical problems, too. Without cigarettes to occupy them, he explained, smokers won't be so willing to wait a long while for their food and drinks; cooks and waiters will have to work faster, resulting in the sort of rapid customer turnover that is typically very un-French. "Long dinners with several bottles of wine and lots of discussion are going to be difficult," he said. "The ambience will be totally different."
For more years than anyone can count, Paris's ubiquitous cafés have brimmed with people lingering for hours on end with cigarettes over coffee or drinks; over platters of cheese or bowls of onion soup; over newspapers, novels or textbooks; over gossip, break-ups or political debate. Sartre and de Beauvoir, philosophizing at the Café de Flore with spirals of cigarette smoke floating above their heads, helped create a smoking persona that to some extent still exists.
"Smokers are more passionate," said Véronique Moran, 51, who has smoked for 40 years, and is a regular at Le Cyrano, a café in Paris's bustling Place de Clichy. "We're more sensitive, we think about things and talk about things deeply, we get carried away, we rebel against things."
But today these rebels find themselves more marginalized than romanticized. "The ban on smoking in cafés is the end of a type of person," Moran said. "Now, people think about working more to make more money, being competitive, staying in shape, being good-looking."
It might be far-fetched to imagine smoking becoming obsolete in a country whose iconic figures include the Gitane-smoking singer-poet Serge Gainsbourg. But the ban on café smoking does seem to signal a cultural shift toward a more wholesome, modern and adaptable image.
Ireland and Italy show that countries with longstanding smoking traditions may introduce bans fairly smoothly, as they did in 2004 and 2005. In Germany, where regulations vary locally, Berlin will join France on Jan. 1 in forbidding smoking in its beloved coffee houses, as well as all other enclosed public spaces.
But there are detractors, and in France detractors of the new law say it all but destroys the café's ultimate function in France: to serve as the socioeconomic glue of society.
"In France, the café is the one place where classes mix," Moran said. "Everyone is there, from students to grandmas. Now there won't be all different kinds of people - only thirty-somethings with money."
The sentiment that the smoking ban will limit the diversity and interaction of the café clientele is shared by many. "People say that a café is the thermometer of a country," said Cécile Perez, 54, owner of La Fronde, a bar-tobacco store in the historic Marais district. "In a café, while we smoke, we meet new people, we exchange ideas, we learn, we listen, we talk about everything. If we stop that, what do we have left?"
La Fronde is in many ways a typical Parisian neighborhood café: In the morning, street cleaners in bright green uniforms sip coffee next to slick businessmen on their way to the office; at lunch hour, working-class types rub shoulders with impeccably tousled hipsters at the bar, while couples of all ages rub noses over salads; during the after-work rush, there is a steady soundtrack of clinking glasses intermingled with arpeggios of conversation; the constant, no matter what time of day, is the smoke that drifts through the air in curls and clouds, seemingly unnoticed.
Olivier Seconda, 43, is a regular at the café, and though he doesn't smoke, he finds the imminent ban excessive.
"Our motto in France is: liberty, equality, fraternity," he said. "The café is the place that represents that. You're free to smoke, everyone pays the same price for a beer and different kinds of people converse with one another. This new law is a hindrance to that."
Seconda expects the ban to be felt even more acutely in small villages far from Paris, where the café is often the only means of social interaction. There is already nostalgia for a space that allows people of all walks of life to share something - even if it is sometimes no more than a few words and the smoke wafting between them.
But many people welcome an impending future of cleaner café air. Martin Gaillard, 25, has smoked since high school but said that he and many younger smokers accepted the new law.
"I think my generation is the first to travel abroad extensively, so we've seen places where the ban already exists, and it's not so bad," he said. "We're not all so typically French in this mentality of protesting everything and protecting every right."
Gaillard is not particularly fond of smokeless Starbucks or France's new fitness-friendly president, and he believes that smoking in cafés is a unique part of France's cultural and social heritage. Yet he recognizes that it is above all an insistent public health issue.
The time has come, he thinks, to turn the page. "France has this reputation of never evolving," he said. "Now things are starting to change."