French Way of Life Goes Up in Smoke

Smokers took advantage of a one-day grace period and savored their last cigarettes over morning coffee in cafes across France as a ban against lighting up in bars and restaurants took effect Tuesday.

French officials said they would not enforce the new measure -- aimed at clearing the air in France's notoriously hazy cafes, bars, restaurants and nightclubs -- until Wednesday.

At Cafe Au Depart in Paris, the mood was decidedly downbeat.

"It's the end of a way of life," said David Fossey, 32, stubbing out a cigarette.

Jean-Pierre Aiglement, 55, enjoying a cup of coffee before his shift waiting tables at the Au Depart, said he wouldn't be "chased out onto the sidewalk."

"I'll smoke where I please," he said.

Under the measure, smokers like Aiglement caught lighting up inside face a euro63 (US$93) fine, while owners who turn a blind eye to smoking in their establishments risk a euro135 (US$198) fine.

Some say the ban will force restaurant staff into the uncomfortable role of enforcers and predict a drop in business from smokers who like to light up over coffee and drinks or after a meal.

"Once they start enforcing the ban, this place will be empty," Aiglement said.

With the ban, France joins the swelling ranks of European countries -- including Italy, Belgium, Spain, Britain and Ireland -- that already have enacted broad anti-smoking laws.

Eight states in neighboring Germany also launched partial smoking bans in restaurants and bars on Tuesday.

However, in few nations is smoking as much a part of national identity as it is in France. A dense haze shrouded the Left Bank cafes where celebrated thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once held court, and there's hardly a photograph of iconic singer Serge Gainsbourg without a cigarette.

About a quarter of France's 60 million people smoke. The Health Ministry said one in two regular smokers -- or some 66,000 people annually -- dies of smoking-related illness here, and about 5,000 nonsmokers die each year from second-hand smoke.

Smoking was prohibited last year in France's workplaces, schools, airports, hospitals and other "closed and covered" public places such as train stations.

Restaurants and other so-called places of conviviality were given an extra 11 months to allow owners to adapt their establishments to the new rules, which permit smoking only inside special sealed chambers.

Restaurateurs have railed against the chambers, which they insist are prohibitively expensive and urged unsuccessfully for more flexibility in the new measure.

In Germany, a group representing restaurant and bar owners filed a challenge to the country's top court

While many French smokers see the ban as an infringement on their rights, others, like Fossey, called it incentive to kick the habit.

"I had intended to quit for a while now, but this seals the deal," he said.

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