Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Sunday that France will begin putting in place a ban on smoking in public places in February — though restaurants, bars and dance clubs will be allowed to wait to apply it until 2008.

"We have decided to ban [smoking] tobacco in public places" Villepin told LCI television, adding that buildings like schools and offices would be affected in February, but some types of businesses would be allowed to postpone the new rules until Jan. 1, 2008.

If the ban takes effect, France would become the latest European country to join the anti-smoking bandwagon — Ireland, Spain, Italy and Britain have adopted similar measures.

Villepin said the ban will be announced by decree "in the next few days" — allowing the government to avert a potentially explosive parliamentary debate ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year.

On Tuesday, a parliamentary panel called for a ban on smoking in enclosed public areas within a year and floated an idea of "hermetically sealed" smoking rooms for those who want to light up — which Villepin said he favors. However, no service would be allowed in such rooms in order to protect the health of waiters.