France, the nation that invented the cigarette and made smoking an art, takes an historic swipe at the habit this week with a ban in public places. Many doubt, however, that the drastic measure will be fully enforced.

Employees and pupils — some of whom are allowed to smoke in the playground — will bear the brunt of the law, which covers workplaces, educational institutions and hospitals. Cafés, restaurants and bars have another year before imposing what, until the 1990s, would have been an inconceivable breach of citizens’ rights.

“It is high time that we did this,” Xavier Bertrand, the Health Minister, said. “From February 1 no one should be forced to breathe other people’s smoke. In the future our children will find it inconceivable that we used to smoke in offices or schools.”

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Despite 16 years of state campaigning, almost a third of the French smoke, and the number is growing again because of an increase among the under-25s, half of whom indulge.

Some lycées (high schools) have outlawed smoking since last autumn. Others that allow 16-year-olds to smoke in the schoolyard argue that doing so is safer than having pupils cluster outside the gates, where they could be hit by cars.

Lawyers are also advising companies that they could be held responsible for the safety of employees who rush into the street for a cigarette break. Some experts say that employers can deduct wages for time spent puffing on the pavement, although a Paris tribunal ruled recently that a smoking employee was still “thinking about the job, therefore working”.

Until now, smoking has been allowed in marked indoor zones. From Thursday, companies can install ventilated smoking booths but their specifications are so complicated that few are expected to do so.

Smokers in a public place will face on-the-spot fines of €68 (£45) and employers will be charged €135.

More than 175,000 inspectors and law officers are supposed to police the ban but dozens of health inspectors and doctors demonstrated in Paris this month against their obligation to act as “smoking police”.

“Asking us to fine patients is totally against medical ethics,” Béatrice Broche, vice-president of the Union of Health Inspectors, said. “Our job is to make employers obey the labor law, not to punish employees.”

Exceptions to the new rules have been made for places that are “substitutes for the home”, such as hotels and retirement homes. Psychiatric hospitals have also been given latitude.

French attitudes to tobacco have changed vastly since the days when presidential candidates, including the younger Jacques Chirac, would drag on clopes (cigarettes) while campaigning. According to a European Commission survey, 91 per cent of the French favor a ban in the workplace, and 78 per cent in restaurants and cafés.

However, many believe the ban could go the way of the “Evin law”, which in 1991 tightly restricted smoking in public places but was ignored largely by catering establishments and many workplaces.

Dense smoke is still the norm in cafés and restaurants, and les non-fumeurs are often relegated to inferior parts of the establishment.

The idea of a smoke-free France still causes amazement and some patriots argue that a ban is an un-French step towards the nanny states of northern Europe. Les Echos, a business daily, said yesterday: “Who in the old days could have imagined that, four months from a presidential election, a government could publish such a decree without being lynched?”

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