French Meal Up in Smoke

The setting is straight out of the Michelin guide:  linen tablecloth, silverware that’s actually silver, no prices on the menu. The soup bowls have gone back to the kitchen and the wine has been sampled and judged a good choice And just as the main dish arrives, the family at the next table–mere, pere and 16-year-old fille–reach for the pack of Gauloises next to the centerpiece. Another meal lost.

Changing tables is worth a try. Complaining loudly will probably be answered with cold stares, indifference or, in a café, enlightening remarks on the nonsmoker’s nationality.

There is, in fact, a law against smoking in most public places. That may be news for many people, because it is not zealously enforced. Commuters smoke on the platform waiting for the métro and cafés and restaurants still carry a blue haze near the ceiling. The enforcement of the law and the movement to make nonsmoking the norm is falling on activist groups. These small, relatively poorly-funded grass-roots oranizations are taking their fight to the tobacco multinationals.

This month, for the first time, the tobacco company Seita will face two smoker victim complaints. The families bringing charges against the industry state there is not enough information given on the harmful effects of smoking. If they win, they will set landmark decisions. Philippe Boucher, a spokesman for the Comité National Contre le Tabagisme (CNCT), the organization providing the lawyers, said their legal case was strong, “about fifty-fifty.” This was due in part, he said, to judges who are no longer so impressed by large companies. The industry, he added, is now very concerned about the outcome.

The CNCT is one of 35 anti-smoking and nicotine addiction groups across the country. The coalition’s aim is public education and awareness, and forcing those in charge to respect the law.

Four related cases are already pending, according to Jacques Dumond, president of the Droits des Non-Fumeurs (DNF). All of these lawsuits were brought by young women who had been laid off from their jobs “because they asked to be able to work in an office without smoke.” The reasons given for their layoffs were pretexts, Dumond said.

Smoking in enclosed public places is completely forbidden by the loi Evin, passed in 1991. The purpose of the law is twofold, first to prevent nicotine addiction and second, to “. . .assure the protection of nonsmokers.” This phrase occurs four times in the law. Then why is the nonsmoker often treated like a pariah?

Members of the anti-smoking coalition name three principal reasons why the law isn’t respected. The first is financial. According to the provisions of the law, a restaurant owner, for example, is required to put up no-smoking decals and remove ashtrays. He may install a special smoking area if space permits. However, only the largest hotels have enough space and funds to turn over an entire floor to smokers, and only the most spacious restaurants can install a properly ventilated smoking zone. Take the example of the corner bistro, with three tables along one wall and three tables along the other. The aisle running between the two rows is less than a meter wide. One side is marked “non-fumeurs.” The owner has upheld the barest letter of the law, though the breeze blows where it wants. A “public enclosed place” as small as this one can’t be converted without expensive renovation, if it is even possible.

Dr. Bertrand Dautzenberg, president of Paris Sans Tabac (PST), sighed and said, “Well, at least the owner’s marked a nonsmoking zone.” For the time being, the Evin law is meant to be educational, he argued. The policemen patrolling the métro, for example, could hand out 150F fines on the spot for smoking, but they rarely do. They give out warnings not to smoke.

Because the government applies the law indifferently, the law is generally not respected, Dumond said. The second reason for the pale blue cloud of smoke hovering against the ceiling is political foot-dragging.

The tobacco lobby here is strong and vocal and content with the status quo. French tobacco farmers, heavily subsidized by the government, bring in 49 million francs annually, according to Dautzenberg. The public awareness groups receive less than one half of one percent of that revenue to fight nicotine addiction, though that is one of the stated purposes of the Evin law. The government is reluctant to apply the law, “unwilling to take any risks,” Boucher said.

Ultimately, the individual and not the government is responsible for applying the law. But ingrained habits, the addictive properties of nicotine, and smokers’ simple disdain for the rules are hard to overcome. The greatest reason for the law’s effectiveness is the lack of personal will. Boucher called it “the typical attitude of resistance” toward legislation. “It’s not a question of freedom,” he added, “it’s a question of health.” Dumond added that “The mentality of the French is ‘not seen, not caught.’ They don’t move unless they get a kick in the pants or if there’s a cop on the corner.”

Dumond’s organization, the DNF, has 200 members to deal with the approximately six million smokers in the Ile de France. They work in conjunction with the CNCT to act as the cop on the corner, reminding office managers that their workers have the right to a smoke-free environment and to threaten legal action if the notice isn’t heeded.

Not everyone is a scofflaw. Some businesses have already grouped all their smokers into the same offices. And public attitudes are slowly changing. Ninety percent of the people polled after the law was passed were in favor of forbidding smoking indoors, according to Sylvie de Méré of the Comité Francais d’Education Pour la Santé. Even 64% agreed fines for offenders were a good idea.

Until fines are handed out regularly, it may take several legal upsets to show the discrepancy between the wording of the law and its application. Until the post-1789 idea of personal liberty covers the rights of diners as well as after-dinner smokers, the Gauloise smoke will only dissipate slowly.