France shrugs off its je ne sais quoi

The reams of news stories on the new French ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants and night spots have invariably focused on the aura of glamour those little death sticks once conveyed. In newspapers around the globe, nostalgic descriptions of the likes of Coco Chanel or Albert Camus taking a luxurious drag on a cigarette have been, um, de rigueur.

But to focus on the diminished allure of the cigarette is to miss the significance of the French banning the most cinematic of sins. No, it’s not that the French gave the cigarette -- the “little cigar” -- its name or that the plant’s active ingredient was named after Jean Nicot, the diplomat who introduced tobacco to the royal court of France in 1559. Rather, it’s the role the French have played in the world’s imagination.

Just as California, which imposed the first public smoking ban in 1994, has long been a symbol of clean living, France -- land of wine, women and rich food -- has been the global model of elegant indulgence and well-choreographed excess.

Particularly to the guilty, austere American mind, France has served as a sophisticated and less uptight oasis in a way that other more illicit and gritty getaways -- think Tijuana or New Orleans -- could not. It is the French who have given us terms for the things we lust after but rarely indulge in -- like femmes fatales or menages a trois. They have been the baroque to our utilitarian sensibility. And by example, they have given us the sense that there is more to life than work, and that some “sins,” ritualized and accepted, may protect us against even more destructive cycles of self-denial and excess.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending the glories of smoking. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. I even agree wholeheartedly with smoking bans in workplaces and restaurants. But I do find it absurd when smoking is banned in nocturnal haunts where adults commonly repair to imbibe known-to-be toxic beverages and otherwise indulge in (lightly) supervised, socially acceptable self-abuse.

That old font of American wisdom, Ben Franklin, once said that “sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful.” In the U.S., contemporary public health specialists and moralists don’t employ the word of God to stamp out sin, but they do rally around the notion of the common good. They single out particular evils that they believe deserve to be suppressed at all costs. Think temperance and prohibition.

The French, on the other hand, with their traditional and vaunted tolerance of sensual indulgence, seemed to have known all along that such attempts to suppress hurtful things can itself be, well, unhealthy. In France, children as young as 5 may be allowed to sip wine at dinner, and so become acquainted with alcohol as an accompaniment to food. That may account for the fact that French kids aren’t often caught binge drinking as kids are in Britain and the U.S., countries that have traditionally harbored puritanical attitudes toward drink. As our experiment in prohibition proved, we know only too well how draconian moral legislation can provoke behavioral backlash.

For the record, I think all those romantic images of Jean-Paul Belmondo wreathed in cigarette smoke are old and tired. As far as I’m concerned, the French government should encourage its citizens to quit smoking. And I’m all for any government putting reasonable limits on public access to smoke and drink, particularly when children are concerned.

But when France begins to over-legislate adult personal behavior aux americains, it may be denying its own brand of wisdom: We all need to be a little bad once in awhile. The smoking ban in France suggests that the French have forgotten the sage words of one of its greatest smokers: “If I satiate my desires, I sin but I deliver myself from them,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. “If I refuse to satisfy them, they infect the whole soul.”