Friday, January 16, 2009

Forbidden France: How long before the term ‘bon vivant’ is wiped clean?

A recent article in Le Courrier International by Macedonian writer Venko Andonovski lamented the country’s smoking ban and its negative effects on Balkan social traditions. Here in France, it was like re-reading history, only applied to another nation.

During the tumultuous month of May, 1968, one of the preferred battle cries of rebelling young Parisians was, ‘il est interdit d’interdire.’ Rising up against the 1950s status quo endorsed by conservative President Charles de Gaulle, these revolutionaries fought for a country where it would be ‘forbidden to forbid’ everything from freedom of thought and speech to increased rights for women and religious and sexual liberty.

When elected in 2007 (ironically, during the month of May), French President Nicolas Sarkozy heralded a ‘rupture’ (break) from the school of thought established back in the sixties. We’ve come a long way, baby, he seemed to be saying. It’s time to move on.

In a way, this was already happening well before Sarko took the top job at Elysée – not just in his own country, but across the rest of the European Union as well.

There is a perception (accurate or not) that a certain breed of wander-lusting North Americans have of Europe as a place where savoir-vivre will forever remain alive and well. The puritanical hang-ups that exist back home are considered quaint in the Old World, where centuries of history have formed a level of sophistication that we have yet to attain. For starry-eyed Francophiles, the word ‘Paris’ conjures up all of the cliché images of civilized debauchery and bon vivants: chic intellectuals debating politics over cheese and wine; sexy couples whispering husky nothings into each other’s ears on a moonlit Pont Neuf, brooding Frenchman consummating illicit relationships with mysterious femmes fatales in luxurious hotel rooms during the hours between cinq à sept. To the outsider – or newcomer – it’s a city where vices are shrugged off as ‘pas grave’ if indulged in moderately, where pleasure is a necessary part of living, and where one’s lifestyle is one’s business, keeping the moral views of others out of the bedroom or any other room…and especially the secret garden. In matters large and small, il est interdit d’interdire.

For the most part, these clichés still exist, with one notable difference: before, all of this cinematic activity took place among thick clouds of smoke. But with a number of other European countries already enforcing their own bans, France went smoke-free in 2007, just before Sarkozy was elected.

What’s interesting is how easily France’s smoking ban was embraced. In the months leading up to it, many wondered if the French – a nation of heavy smokers – would follow it at all. Many of the larger restaurants had installed non-smoking sections years before, but that didn’t stop their occupants from lighting up. What made the government think that a global ban would change anything?

The crowded sidewalks and outdoor patios attest, since 2007, that things have changed, and while it’s not evident (anecdotally, at least) that the French have cut down on how much they smoke, they’re certainly doing it in a different spot.

North American smokers have been accustomed to this for years, and in Canada at least, the laws are getting tougher: in some areas, smokers must put a designated number of metres between themselves and the building in front of which they are standing, and one town in Nova Scotia is instituting a smoking ban on an entire street.

But this isn’t a forum for raising the tired issues relating to why smoking is bad. Nor is it the place to debate whose rights are more important (those of non-smokers versus smokers) because we all know whose have prevailed. It’s unnecessary to (yet again) discuss how much smoking costs the health system, because we are well aware of its price. Just as we are in tune with the other dangers threatening our well-being – like, say, stress resulting from the increasing number of screeching children now populating Parisian cafés because their parents no longer fear polluting little lungs.

Here, what’s regrettable about the smoking ban is that it makes Paris seem more like home. In Canada, the knee-jerk reaction every time something poses any kind of threat is to propose a ban, or at least heavy restrictions. (One of the most extreme examples surfaced last summer, when a politician suggested establishing a ‘knife registry’ similar to the country’s gun registry, after a murder on a cross-country bus involving a kitchen knife.) Many of us who moved to the Old World did so, in part, to get away from the constraints of the New one. A smoke-free Paris may seem like a trivial matter to complain about, but it begs the question: under the guise of improving our collective health and well-being, what will they outlaw next? Will the break from May 1968 evolve from ‘forbidden to forbid’ to simply ‘forbidden?’

And if so, where does this leave the bon vivants?