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Smoking ban is a breath of fresh air in the cafes of France

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Posted: January 2, 2008 2:52 p.m.
Updated: January 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    PARIS — What’s that nice smell? For drinkers and diners in France on Wednesday, the answer was fresh air.
    France reinvented itself with a new ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants and night spots, the most drastic measure yet to curb the habit in a country where cigarettes were long a potent lifestyle symbol.
    Some diehard smokers blamed health-obsessed Americans for starting the trend. But others were delighted by being able to sip or serve a strong espresso without finishing the day with clothes smelling of second-hand smoke.
    ‘‘It’s a new art of living,’’ Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot insisted on a visit to a cafe.
    With the ban, France joined the ranks of European countries that have enacted anti-smoking restrictions. Most recently, anti-smoking laws took effect on New Year’s Day in eight states in neighboring Germany, including Berlin and Bavaria.
    Turkey’s parliament on Wednesday was debating a proposal to ban smoking in all enclosed public areas, such as bars, restaurants and coffeehouses.
    In France, a New Year’s Day reprieve allowed revelers their last legal drags in public places before the law took effect, the latest measure in a progressive crackdown that began 15 years ago.
    Some called it the end of an era in a nation that long portrayed the cigarette as a sign of freedom, rebellion, individualism or even intellect, indeed, a certain idea of the country.
    ‘‘They’re banning tobacco practically like it’s cocaine,’’ said Jean-Yves Oussedik, drawing on his pipe — and braving a near-freezing chill — on the sidewalk terrace of cafe Les Deux Magots, a famed Left Bank institution. Outdoors is now the only place where smoking is allowed at cafes.
    Personalities like author Albert Camus and thinker Jean-Paul Sartre smoked their cigarettes and pipes in the warm, leathery interior of Les Deux Magots, once a gathering place for literati.
    The more than century-old establishment has actually forced smokers outside since last February, when smoking was banned in offices, train stations and other public places.
    But has it lost its soul in the process?
    ‘‘No,’’ says a waiter there for the past 19 years who gave his name only as Gilles. ‘‘On the contrary, we are breathing.’’
    Dinos Rodopoulos, a 51-year-old Greek media executive smoking with his wife on the cafe’s outdoor terrace, said he felt a little like an outlaw.
    ‘‘It’s fun to have the feeling of illegality, he said, although he also lamented that France was becoming health-obsessed like the United States.
    Under the measure, those caught lighting up inside face a fine of more than $90, while owners who turn a blind eye to smoking face a nearly $200 fine.
    However, the health minister said dialogue, not punishment, would be the first step with fines leveled only against ‘‘foot-draggers’’ and ‘‘repeat offenders.’’
    On the first full day of the law, one could find all points of view, from supporters to hard-core smokers saying their liberty had been infringed upon.
    ‘‘People will get used to it gradually,’’ said Alex Nesanir, who runs ‘‘La Havane,’’ where the smell of stale smoke clung to the walls.
    One also could find shivering smokers looking on the bright side, like Elie Tasso, 49, who saw conviviality rising to new heights huddling outside ‘‘Le Dragon’’ restaurant after lunch.
    ‘‘It allows us to discuss ... We all have the same worry, to smoke,’’ he said.

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