According to Odile Lasagne, a Parisian tobacconist for more than 25 years, the French had it coming. Their government has just imposed a ban on smoking in public places, forcing 14.2 million French citizens to rethink their smoking routine beginning next year.
But Lasagne, the owner of Le Tabac Saint Germain says she is not surprised one bit.
"Once upon a time, we asked for permission from the people sitting beside us before lighting a cigarette. We smoked respectfully, between cheese and dessert, but no one respects anything anymore," says Lasagne.
"The French don't care. They can't be bothered to cross the street on the crosswalk, they can't be bothered to wait in line. They didn't respect the first smoking law either, and look where we are today."
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced Sunday that a new smoking ban would go into effect in schools, public buildings and offices around France as early as next February. Anyone caught violating the new decree, which aims at stopping the 5,000 yearly deaths that are believed to be caused by inhaling secondhand smoke, will be fined 75 euros. ($94.5)
As Lasagne puts it, the ban comes as no surprise. Back in 1991, the government voted the law "Evin" to separate smokers from nonsmokers in public places.
The law made headlines at the time and provoked strong reactions among restaurateurs, who found it impractical and ignored it. Even the substantial increase in the price of cigarettes over the last decade did little to make lifelong smokers quit, and even less to dissuade teenagers from picking up the trendy habit.
"Both of my daughters started to smoke at school," says Lasagne. "They learned in the playground, in a space reserved for smoking. I know that the new decree will be harsh on my shop. However, it bans tobacco from schools, and I certainly hope it will help my daughters kick the habit."
The decree gives a one-year grace period to restaurants, cafés and nightclubs to adapt their businesses to the new legislation. But La Coupôle, a popular café in Paris' Montparnasse district, became essentially a smoke-free establishment this summer, except for one small area where customers can still light up.
"The change happened gradually. The small nonsmoking area took over the entire dining room, and the café is doing very well," says co-director Pascal Delbrouck. "Only a few clients request smoking tables. I think our habits are changing."
The ban could mean the end of an era. Even though cafés and restaurants are becoming smoke-free all around Europe, we think of the French as the last smokers on earth, eternally enjoying their Gauloises at café terraces.
Yet despite this enduring image and the French citizen's apparent reluctance to drop the butt, the prime minister described his fellow Gauls yesterday as ready to change.
"I bought a book on how to quit," says Thomas Gerbault, a French engineer in his 20s. "Now I just have to read it." Gerbault, who says he smokes "too many" cigarettes a day (10 to 15 to be precise), wants to quit smoking. He has quit before, for a week and a half during a visit to New York, where some of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the world make it difficult to light up.
Like many of his fellow citizens, Gerbault likes a cigarette with his coffee in the morning. He likes a cigarette during his coffee breaks (and there are many of them in a French person's workday). And he also likes a cigarette after dinner.
"You ask me what I think of the new decree. Well, I don't think it will affect me at all," he tells ABC News. "The prices went up, my company banned smoking inside the office building, but I still smoke too much. I just smoke outside."
Along with the ban, de Villepin announced that the government would cover a third of the medical expenses of each individual wishing to quit smoking. The French might be ready to quit, but can still use all the help they can get.