Sunday, 6 January 2008

Smoke screen

I went into a café-bar just opposite where we live, with La Fille. In the past I would have hesitated to go in if she was with me. I would have glanced enviously into its snug trysting corners and hurried on. We went in and sat in wicker chairs taking long, deep, clean breaths. We smelled the cinammon and nutmeg of the vin chaud. We caught the trailing whiff of a ripe cheese giving up its defences at it sailed past on a wooden platter. There was the very faintest odour of ground coffee mingled with duck cassoulet. We drank our drinks - a fizzy water for me, an apple juice for the Fille - and we left. It was such a pleasant experience I could have hung around all afternoon listening to snaps of other people's lives as they came, kissed, shook hands, whispered, chatted, joked and gossipped, then kissed again and parted. But we had other important things to do; things involving paint and crayons and stickers and glue and play dough. We arrived home as fragrant as we had left; not so much as a sniff of cigarette smoke lingered in our hair, on our coats or clothes.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of state-subsidised nicotine gum over the smoking ban here but it has to be said French smokers had it coming. The surprise is that it actually happened; that the government did not cave in to the right-to-puff lobby and angry tobacconists and postpone the law as they did last year. Then again there are no elections coming up.

I have not had a cigarette for years but I would call myself a "recovering smoker". It sounds a bit New Age, but in my view once a smoker always a smoker with addiction only one puff away. I am not 'anti-smoking', though I would prefer the Frenchman did not because I do not want him to die of lung cancer. He has a weakness for the filterless Gitanes favoured by the late crooner and chain smoker Serge Gainsbourg. Still, I defend his and anyone else's right to smoke as long as he and they keep it to themselves as much as I defend my right not to have to smoke his or their smoke. Consequently, he is banished to the street if he wants to light up, even in his own home.

France's smokers are a selfish tribe, in my experience. The sight of them huddling on the rainy streets, rubbing cold hands, hopping from chilly foot to chilly foot and whingeing like mad elicits no sympathy from me. It might have done had they not banged on about their rights ad infinitum and lit up whenever, wherever without the slightest concern for anyone else. When I was pregnant with La Fille and even the suggestion of cigarette smoke made me feel sick, it was almost impossible to eat or drink out. Just one month before she was born, ie clearly very pregnant, I went out for lunch with visiting English friends who watched open-mouthed as a woman at the next table pushed her chair back so the smoke from her cigarette did not disturb her dining companion and dangled her cigarette right under my nose. In Paris restaurants where tables are edge to edge and a injudicious fidget could leave you sitting in a stranger's lap, smokers often lit up in between courses while those inches away from them were still eating.

There have been some ridiculous claims from smokers and smoking sympathisers. One French writer living in London lamented the ban saying it "stigmatised" smoking and suggested smoking is a rite easily avoided. I do not know where she has been living, but it is certainly not France. Smoking is not easily avoided, even on the streets. I have lost count of the number of times La Fille has just avoided having her face and hair singed by a feckless pedestrian strolling along with a cigarette in hand. Or, for that matter, the number of times I have brushed casually, indiscriminately flicked ash off her face and clothes as she sat or slept in her pushchair. Once, when I threw a party for the Fille, I put a table, chair and ashtray along with some magazines in the hallway immediately outside our front door for the benefit of smoking parents. On the door I stuck a big 'No Smoking' sign. Even so, one friend's French husband still lit up and had the gall to tell another friend who remonstrated with him where to go.

More nonsense is being spouted here about it being the end of 'liberté' and the death of 'French culture', while it is noted that Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir et al all smoked (Gainsbourg once claimed God was a smoker). This kind of childish reasoning takes me back to when I was too young to know better and was told: "Just because so-and-so does it, doesn't make it right and doesn't mean you have to do it."

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