France, Land of Cigarettes, May Banish Most Smokes
by Elaine Sciolieno

    PARIS -- Jean-Paul Sartre smoked. So did Colette, Cocteau, Camus and Coco Chanel.
    One of the most memorable scenes in French films is Jean-Paul Belmondo lifting his head, dragging on a cigarette and rubbing this thumb back and forth across his lips in " Breathless." (He smokes abut two dozen times in the movie.)
    There is something about smoking that seems very French.
    But as in other European countries, smoking in public has fallen out of favor here. After a five-month governmental inquiry, a parliamentary committee approved a proposal to ban smoking in public areas.
    Under the measure, cafes, hotels, restaurants, discos and casinos could designate spaces for smoking only if they could be "hermetically sealed areas, furnished with air-extraction systems and subject to extremely rigorous health norms."
    Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said he he would decide quickly how to proceed on the matter. "The French people would not understand if we do not make a decision" in the face of the research, th recently told members of Parliament.
    But not every one here agrees. To committed smokers and many tobacconists and bar and restaurant owners, the campaign reflects the loss of a core French value -- then rights of the individual.
    "I see this as a personal attack," said Andre Santini, a center-right member of Parliament from a Paris suburb and compulsive cigar smoker, who recently posed for photographers in the tobacco kiosk in the National Assembly building. "What disturbs me is the ayatollahs you meet everywhere. They tell you how you have to make love, how you have to eat."
    At the end of the year, the kiosk will no longer sell cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos, only candy and newspapers. Just as bad, he said, smoking will eventually be banned in the corridors of the National Assembly itself.
    "I'll end my life where I started it -- in the men's rooms," said Jean-Pierre Balligand, a lawmaker from eastern France. "I started smoking like every other schoolboy, in the toilets of my junior high school. And that's where I'll end up, in the toilets of the National Assembly, while the school principal, Mr. Debre, screams at us for smoking."
    The "school principal" is Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the National Assembly, who ordered the ban on the sale of tobacco products inside Parliament to "set the example."
    France's history with tobacco goes back more than four centuries. Nicotine, after all, is named after Jean Nicot, a 16th century ambassador to Portugal who took tobacco leaves imported from America to Catherine de Medici as a cure for her migraines.
    But France was also in the forefront in the anti-smoking movement in Europe, passing the toughest legislation on the Continent in 1991. Smoking was banned in most public places except in designated areas. Tobacco products were required to carry health warnings. Cigarette advertising was banned in 1993. But there were loopholes, and application of the law has been uneven.
    Today, nearly 80 percent of the French support the idea of a smoking ban in pulic places.
    Still, about 12 million of the French -- about 20 percent of the population -- are smokers, according to government figures, and more than 70,000 people die in France every year from smoking-related illnesses.
    Many French businessmen predict serious disruption of their businesses and a decline in profits. They certainly (since this is France) would demand compensation.
    "There is going to be considerable damage," said Francis Attrazic, the leader of restaurant and hotel owners' union and a restaurant owner (and occasional smoker). "We haven't assessed how much it will be because it's complicated, but we are hearing things from the countries that have bans, and what is shows is a drop of 25 to 30 percent in sales in some establishments."
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