PARIS – A ban on smoking in public spaces came into effect Thursday, a change that may alter the image of a country defined in part by its smoky cafes and cigarette-puffing intellectuals.
France's 15 million smokers will be banned from lighting up in workplaces, schools, airports, hospitals and other "closed and covered" public places. More than 175,000 agents are to enforce the ban, handing out fines of $88 for smokers and $174 for employers who look the other way.
In a year, the ban will extend to cafes and restaurants — sure to be the moment of truth for a certain image of France, where writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre are remembered with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
"A world is collapsing," writer Philippe Delerm wrote in a front-page ode to the cigarette in Le Monde newspaper, referring to the alluring image of the chain-smoking intellectual. "Those were good times. But nobody thought about the collateral damage."
Statistics — like 66,000 smoker deaths per year in France — and changing norms are snuffing out the romance along with the cigarette. Italy, Spain, Belgium, Britain and Ireland are all ahead of France in enacting broad smoking bans.
Despite staggered anti-smoking initiatives over more than a decade, French smokers have, so far, held sway as officials turned a blind eye to rule-bending.
Nearly a quarter of French people are smokers. Yet a day before the "no smoking" signs go up, there was no sign of panic in the streets.
A scattered check of pharmacies suggested that, so far, smokers are calm, with no pre-ban rush for smokers' aids like nicotine patches. However, two companies that make ventilated smoking rooms for offices say they are gearing up for a rush in orders.
Manuel Bussac, 25, who works in real estate and smokes 15 cigarettes a day, is angry because the ban leaves him with no choice.
"It's the obligation that bothers me," he said, sitting at a sidewalk cafe with a pack of Marlboros planted squarely on the table.
Bussac said he has done his workplace smoking on his office balcony, allowing him to carry on with business on the telephone. Starting Thursday, he will have to smoke in the street.
At five minutes per cigarette, "I think I'll lose an hour of work," he said.
But will the ban incite him to cut down or stop smoking?
"On the contrary, I'll smoke more now," he said.
Some people clearly need to have the choice made for them, and Bernard Geoffrey, a 29-year-old firefighter from the southwest city of Nimes, is among them.
"If you have to go outside to smoke, you smoke less," Geoffrey said. "I'm going to stop in February, using my willpower. That's all."
For those lacking sufficient inner strength to break the habit, the government will help by reimbursing up to $65 per person per year for stop-smoking aids. It will also allow companies to invest in strictly regulated special smoking rooms inside the workplace.
Gaelle Parlouer, a 28-year-old who describes herself as a heavy smoker, is happy about the ban because it will help her to cut down. But she refuses to quit.
"I will never stop smoking," she said. "We have just one life so we should profit from the little pleasures."