France has banned smoking in public places since 2006 in line with the rest of Europe. But there is still a myth that the French can smoke in all sorts of places which comes mainly, at least to foreigners, from watching French films. In British films, the characters are either buying pints of beer or opening another bottle of Chardonnay, whereas films about or set in France invariably have their characters lighting up happily.
Is this true or not? Whatever the reasons, the French still seem to smoke heavily. There are an estimated 13 million smokers in France from a population of 66 million and they smoke every day. The official statistic for students shows 29 percent of them smoke regularly. There is clearly a problem with young smokers.
And a survey in 2013 by the polling company IPSOS showed that approximately 1 million French people use e-cigarettes out of the 20 million Europeans who do. In Spain, around 700,000 people use e-cigarettes.
The First Attempts at a Ban
France restricted smoking way back in 1991 in what was called the Évin law, after Claude Évin, who was the main mover in introducing the restriction. The law said that restaurants, cafes, and bars had to provide smoking and non-smoking sections.
There was a hilarious period when the non-smoking section was usually in the worst possible part of the establishment (next to the lavatory for instance, or near the swinging service doors into and out of the kitchen) and was pretty tiny while the rest of the place was left to the smokers.
The law wasn’t particularly well-enforced, and the result was pretty ineffective, with the French happily continuing to puff away at the drop of a hat.
Things Had to Change
By 2006, public pressure and changing attitudes were having an effect. A much stronger law was passed banning smoking in enclosed public places such as those restaurants and bars as well as schools and government buildings. What is more, a minimum fine was also set to €500. A legal challenge against it was filed in 2007 but rejected. (As of 2019, a smoker can face a fine of up to €450 and the owner of a venue up to €750.)
Everybody thought that the French, with their well-publicized defiance of the authorities, would not follow the law. But they did, and the smoke-filled, smelly places of the past became smoke-free, delightful places to spend time in.
May 2013 the French Health Minister, Marisol Touraine, announced that the ban on smoking would be extended to take in electronic cigarettes.
In June 2014 smoking was banned in children’s playgrounds as France’s anti-smoking laws become stricter. In July you could be fined €68 (same fine amount in 2019) for the offense. The ban had been trialed for a year in the Parc de Montsouris in Paris. Marisol Touraine said it was designed ‘to respect our children.’
In October 2015 a fine came into force for discarding used cigarettes in public places. There is now a law which bans smoking in cars carrying children and in 2016, one that requires tobacco companies to remove branding on cigarette packets and introduce plain, generic packaging.
An Angry Protest
None of this passed without comment, or rather protest. We are dealing with France after all. When the law was being discussed, angry crowds gathered to intimidate the lawmakers. Licensed tobacconists were the main protesters and used tactics that the French farmers use to such good effect. The tobacconists dumped four tons of carrots outside the Socialist Party’s Paris headquarters. The French got the significance of the carrot; it’s apparently what they call the long red symbol that hangs outside ‘tabacs’ and bars carrying tobacco products in France.
So the bottom line is, don’t smoke in public. But you will still find people in partially covered or open-air terraces still lighting up with their cafe au lait or espresso, so it’s not all over yet.
We might regret the passing of those iconic Gitanes, Gaulouise, and Boyards (a wonderfully packaged brand, always with maize paper that goes out unless you keep puffing which was the brand that all French farmers seemed to use), but it’s part of the very necessary campaign to stop people smoking.