The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011


Bonne nouvelle année! The new year heralds a new era for the cultural life of France, as a distinctive sight and smell disappears from Paris’ famous cafés.

Today (1 January) France’s smoking ban comes into force – it is now illegal to light up in restaurants and bars, as is already the case in Ireland and Italy (Berlin is introducing a similar ban today as well).

The new regulation wipes out a characteristic image of Paris – the hazy Left Bank cafés where the likes of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir (right) would philosophise amid clouds of Gaulois and Gitane fumes. The smoking and philosophising can continue, of course, outside on the terrasse.

It will be interesting to see the rate of adherence to, and enforcement of, the new law. The typical French brasserie, or restaurant-bar, has its own cigarette counter (remember the hypochondriac tobacconist, left, in ‘Amélie’?), and a customer will usually buy his/her packet of fags or pouch of tobacco and then stay for a coffee or a drink.

As Irish bars found in 2003 when our own ban was introduced, smaller Paris bars and cafés don’t always have terrace space outdoors – and anyway, the older clientèle don’t like to sit at tables but prefer to stand at the bar, where prices are cheaper and the ambience is better. Unless their older customers change their ways, some proprietors will obviously suffer.

The Irish smoking-ban experience doesn’t provide a good analogy – we’re a young country, less settled in our ways and more used to adapting. France has always been one of the more traditionalist and self-content countries of Europe, so change comes more slowly and painfully here. Many French people continue to calculate prices in francs and the old currency still appears on receipts and payslips, six years after it ceased to exist. Unlike Ireland, where the euro, smoking ban and plastic bag levy were all quickly accepted, France won’t accept such a fundamental lifestyle change without some pain and protest. Jacques le Frenchman tends to be militant when his personal rights and creature comforts are challenged.

But Sarkozy’s France is showing an appetite for progress and intolerance for traditionalist intransigence. A protest march by tobacconists in November (right) passed off almost unperceived due to strike fatigue after the autumn’s transport stoppages, which themselves were less well supported than in previous years.

And the smoking ban has already been in place in offices and other workplaces since earlier this year, so many people have by now become adapted to popping outside for a quick drag.

The smoking ban also affects France’s live music industry, as concert venues fall under the terms of the regulations. As in Ireland in 2003, the hope is that new punters will be attracted (back) to smoke-free shows. Club-owners aim to share the fresh-air dividend that restaurateurs expect to reap.
Some Paris venues have already been smoke-free for a while. La Maroquinerie, one of our favourite concert spots, has no-smoking signs around its music space – though this was due to health and safety considerations, as the venue is a converted cellar with limited ventilation. But cigarette-craving punters there can still head upstairs to the Maroquinerie’s open-air beer-garden/restaurant space.

Other popular venues, like La Fleche d'Or, won’t be easily able to provide smoking space – but punters will hardly forgo seeing their favourite act because of the smoking ban. Cinemas and theatres are already non-smoking, so it’s not going to be the culture-shock some pessimists fear.

And the fresh air may attract new concert-goers. All things considered, smoke-free music venues should prove to be more of an opportunity than a setback for the Paris live scene.

But then, we would say that - your blogger doesn’t smoke.

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Nuggets from our archive

2007 - REM live in the Olympia, by Michael O'Hara. Possibly the definitive review of any of REM's performances during their 2007 Olympia residency. Even the official REM website linked to it.