France puts smoking ban on the back burner
The tobacco-loving French will be allowed to carry on puffing their Gitanes and Gauloises in smoky bars and bistros after the government caved in on plans to ban smoking in public places.
Ministers, who had already abandoned a controversial youth employment contract after street protests and violence, were accused of "cowardice" by anti-smoking campaigners.
Existing laws require cafés and restaurants to establish clearly separated smoking and non-smoking areas. Fed up with these rules being widely ignored, opponents had pinned their hopes on an outright ban.
President Jacques Chirac's Right-of-centre government had promised to push a decree to this effect through parliament. Only a week ago, Xavier Bertrand, the health minister, confirmed that a ban was on the agenda and said he wanted the issue addressed "as quickly as possible".
However, on Wednesday, soon after the government's climbdown on the labour law reform, Mr Bertrand performed a U-turn. Instead of outlawing smoking, he announced a "vast consultation" on the issue, to be conducted over the next few months.
The Green Party accused the president and government of "sacrificing general interest for the wishes of lobby groups", adding: "The government's political line can be summed up in one word: cowardice."
Even members of Mr Chirac's own party, the UMP, were furious. Yves Bur, one of its MPs, who had proposed the smoking ban, predicted that nobody would be brave enough to confront the issue until after next year's presidential elections.
"I'm disappointed that members of the majority are not capable of taking a decision that has the support of the majority of French people," he said. "Once again the tobacco lobby has won."
France's long love affair with tobacco began in the 16th century, when Jean Nicot - the Frenchman after whom nicotine was named - became the first European to cultivate the plant. Thirty per cent of French adults smoke, down from a peak of more than half in the 1980s, but still an asphyxiating number, as any visitor to a Paris bar will know.
The president and Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, feared that a smoking ban would cause further unrest in the wake of the job contract protests.
A photograph in the French newspaper Libération added insult to injury for anti-smoking campaigners. Taken in the corridors of the Assemblée Nationale, it showed a suited man puffing away… directly in front of a no smoking sign.