Going Smokeless In the Heart of France

It was a revolution – a national smoking ban in all bars, cafés and restaurants. It officially came into effect on January 1st 2008. At the time, the “patrons” of the nation’s various watering holes predicted that the smoking ban would be the beginning of the end for their industry. In December 2007, I went the to small village of Bruère Allichamps, to meet Sephane the owner of the local Bar Tabac and get hist thoughts on the smoking ban. Bruère Allichamps is a typical workaday French village but with one unique distinction. it is at the geographical heart of France.

It’s official. There will be no exemptions to the national smoking ban due to come into force on January 1st 2008. During his election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy had promised a”get out clause” for small bars in rural areas. Often in deepest France, the local café is the focal point of the village. It is the local watering home, cum grocer’s cum post office – it is a “trading post” in the old Wild West style.

Last Friday, I went to the centre of France to meet Stephane who runs the “Café du Commerce” – a trading post. We talked about the smoking ban and what it means for him.

Stephane at the till of his "bar tabac" in the village of Bruère Allichamps in the very centre of France.
Stephane at the till of his “bar tabac” in the village of Bruère Allichamps in the very centre of France.

Forget inspiring landscapes, the road to the centre of France from Bourges in the Cher (The nationale 144), is a badly surfaced tarmac strip bordered on either side by never-ending flat fields. This is more reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise” or “Baghdad Café” than “La Douce France”

Forty years ago this would all have been small fields, bordered by hedgerows and full of Charolais, grazing on lush grass or ambling their way lazily down to the banks of the Cher to drink. Then, in the sixties, the local farmers ripped the heart out of the countryside all in the name of progress. Agricultural labourers were thrown out of work and the exodus began. “Déruralisation” as the French call it. Youngsters headed for the cities in the search of the jobs they couldn’t find in the country and rural communities died.

Bruère Allichamps, the village at the centre of France did not die though.

But what exactly is there at the centre of France? You might expect some kind of Gallic theme park cum museum with cast members attired in traditional peasant costume. Well sorry to disappoint you. Apart from the roadside sign, informing motorists that they are actually at the centre of France, there is nothing spectacular, unless you count the “monument” – a roman column dug up from a local field, surmounted by a red white and blue “tricouleur”

At the centre of France, is real, everyday rural France. Bruère Allichamps (population 600) has two boulangeries, a pharmacy, a hairdresser’s (coiffure Evelyne), a petrol station (one pump, diesel only) an estate agent’s, and le Café du Commerce; known affectionately by the locals as “chez Steph”

Steph’s place is more than just a simple café though; it is the focal point of the entire community. Le café du commerce is the “bar, -tabac, épicerie” and “maison de la presse”, what the French government refer to as « une commerce de proximité ». This is where the locals come to get their paper, play their lottery, stock up on a few basic foodstuffs and buy their cigarettes. Le café du commerce is like a trading post, but Stephane is worried that in a few months trade will be bad.

It’s Friday afternoon, the rain is lashing down from leaden skies, but we are dry and warm, propping up the bar at Steph’s, drinking coffee and smoking. Come January 1st 2008 though the coffee will still be legal, but not the cigarettes. As of New Year’s Day, it will an offence to light up in any café, bar, pub discothèque or restaurant anywhere in France. The nation that gave the world the enigmatic aroma of the “Gaulloise” is going smokeless from Boulogne all the way down to Boniface.

“This is going to kill off business,” sighs Steph as he shakes his head and reaches for another cigarette. “80% of my customers smoke” he continues. “If they can’t smoke here, they just won’t come in anymore.”

As we discuss the new smoke free France, a “paysan” in a cloth cap ventures into the “épicerie”.

Steph’s establishment is divided into two parts. On one side of the bar is the shop, a general store stocked with a few basic foodstuffs, tins, and packets of soup, mostly non-perisahbles. There is a small selection of fresh fruit and veg. Other shelves are stacked with those small everyday essentials that you might not need everyday – batteries, sewing thread, firelighters, and all those things that “rendre service”

The man in the cap buys a couple of apples, the local newspaper and a bottle of wine. As Stephane weighs the fruit the old bloke does his lottery, there’s a 26 million jackpot in Euromillions tonight. As Steph feeds the lottery paper into the machine, the old guy asks for two packs of Gitanes. When he has paid up, he comes into the café and orders “un p’tit blanc” and lights up. When he stubs out, he drains his glass, he slaps a euro on the counter, pulls his collar up round him, then pushes open the door and walks off into the downpour clutching his groceries

“He’s typical of most of my customers” says Steph. “They buy a few groceries or a pack of cigarettes, then they nip round the bar for a quick drink and a smoke. This is just the kind of customer that Steph fears losing. He reckons that the smoking ban will mean a 30% loss in revenue.

I ask him if he’s ever thought of installing a special smoking room as permitted by the legislation;

He shrugs his shoulders.

“What’s the point?” he says with a defeatist air. Though he hasn’t looked into the prices he just knows it’s prohibitive – the room had to be fitted with a air filtration system, “and besides” he laughs “my customers come for a chat, they’re not going to sit in some kind of smoker’s prison. They’ll just smoke at home, unless they make that illegal too.”

The café side of Steph’s place is cavernous, over 100 square metres. It is a true rural bar à la Française. This is not your Parisian Bistrot or one of those awful French theme cafés. This is drinking with the natives in deepest France- a zinc topped Formica bar, green grey lino floor, Formica tables and chairs and a couple of booths with vinyl topped benches. All very reminiscent of an early 70’s Wimpy bar. In one corner stands a pinball machine and in the middle of the floor space, the traditional “babyfoot” table football machine. On the wall behind the bar stand numerous trophies of the Bruere football team and the local « boulistes. » There are photos of dogs, and of course, the traditional post office calendar.

“Look at it” says Steph with a sweeping gesture. “The place is enormous and there’s already a ventilator. How could anyone be bothered by smoke in here? Even if everyone at the bar is puffing away, the smoke never gets to the other end of the room.”

If anyone does light in Steph’s café after January 1st, they will face a 68 Euro fine. Steph himself will in turn be fined 135 Euros for allowing his customers to smoke.

Will he enforce the ban?

Again he shrugs his shoulders. No comment.

« If my customers want to have a cigarette, I can’t see myself stopping them, and I’m certainly not going to report them. »

Will the non-smoking customers denounce the smokers? Probably not. This is a small community. If there is a « corbeau » this will create a lot of bad feeling.

There’s a poster on Steph’s wall pleading for freedom for smokers. It depicts a smoker with both hands in handcuffs. « Et ma liberté? » reads the slogan.

Stephane argues that cafés at least should be free to if they want to become non-smoking establishments. He describes as « lunacy » the idea that customers can buy cigarettes in his bar, but cannot smoke them there.

Perhaps though, Stephane has a valid argument that will allow him to dodge the smoking ban.

“The ban is for public places. This bar is not a public place like a station or a hospital.It’s my place and I don’t force people to come in here, they come of their own free will. If they don’t want to come in a bar where you can smoke, they don’t have to.”

I can’t see this convincing the politicians.

On 21st November, 10,000 « buralistes » – owners of Bar Tabacs marched through Paris to say the same thing. They demanded concessions from the government. At least let people smoke in bars where cigarettes are on sale.

During the presidential election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy himself promised an « assouplissment » or a « softening » in the anti-smoking law. He hinted that bars like Stephane’s in rural areas would be allowed to remain as smoking establishments.

Following the national demonstration, members of parliament from the ruling UMP party, called on the government to adopt the « Spanish smoking model ». Where smaller bars are allowed to « opt out » of the national smoking ban.

There has been talk in France of allowing smoking to continue in rural bars of under 100 square metres.

« Let us decide what is best for us » argues Stephane. For the moment though unless, all of Stephane’s clients will be forced to smoke on the pavement. Perhaps Stephane could leave his « terrasse » outside all year round, but who wants to smoke outside on a day like this. Besides his café borders the « nationale » where HGV’s roll past every two minutes. Sitting on a terrasse in these conditions is hardly a pleasant experience.

So, what will Steph do? Defy the ban and risk a fine, or get everyone to stub out?

« On verra ben » he muses. And with that, he too stubs out and goes to serve the batch of thirsty workers in « bleu de travail » who have just entered the café after a hard day’s graft.

They drink down their « pression » as if it were their last, then they all light up, blowing thick plumes of smoke into the air, a look of relief on their faces that the week is over and they can now relax. Enjoy it while you can.