After Job Law Fiasco, France Retreats on Other Fronts

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 21, 2006

PARIS, April 20 -- Julien Rey, a pack-a-day Camel smoker, should be content with his government. It has just retreated from an anti-smoking law that would have banned him from enjoying a cigarette with a mug of beer at his neighborhood bar.

Instead, Rey views his leaders as spineless and paralyzed by fear of public rejection.

"They're not going to do anything for a year, until the next elections," said Rey, 28, alternating between sips of beer and drags on a Camel at Aux Petits Tonneaux ("At the Little Barrels") bar in central Paris. "And that's too bad -- we need a lot of reforms."

In the nearly two weeks since French officials backed down from a controversial youth labor law under pressure from millions of protesters in the streets nationwide, the government has started retreating from laws -- large and small -- on subjects that include smoking, pollution and flea markets.

"The government leaders are so frightened they cannot move," said Claude Evin, a former French health minister who has spent years advocating smoking bans and other health-related initiatives. "They are startled by their own shadow. France is facing a terrible situation with such leaders."

Government officials had been set to initiate the law banning smoking in bars, restaurants and other public venues in a few weeks, sweeping away a national ritual of a cigarette and a cup of coffee in a cafe. Nonsmokers are usually assigned to the worst tables in the most cramped corners of restaurants.

At an April 12 breakfast meeting -- two days after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin gave in to the pressures of the public, his party and his president in withdrawing the youth labor law -- Villepin and other government leaders decided to hold off on the smoking law.

"The government backed down because they already upset a lot of people lately and they don't need bartenders and clients to be mad as well," said Francois Attrazic, a restaurant owner in rural central France and vice president of the hotel, bar and restaurant association that represents about 80,000 French businesses and opposes a smoking ban.

At the same breakfast, according to the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, officials discussed weakening legislation that would make polluters -- including farmers -- responsible for paying to clean up rivers and lakes. That bill is scheduled for a parliamentary vote next month.

And this past Tuesday, Commerce Minister Renaud Dutreuil announced on RTL Radio that the government is considering loosening the rules of another new law regulating vendors at flea markets, where private citizens peddle their home castoffs side by side with professional antique dealers.

Under pressure from the professionals, the government last fall restricted the amateurs to markets in their home towns and villages. Mayors and others who support or profit from the broadly popular street markets -- a spring and summer fixture across the country -- loudly opposed the new limitations.

Villepin took up his position almost a year ago pledging to energize a lethargic government and reform a nation increasingly viewed as a sluggish competitor in the global economy. In recent months, he has watched his political standing and presidential ambitions plummet in the face of the massive demonstrations that forced him to backtrack on the youth labor law, which allowed employers to fire workers under age 26 anytime during their first two years on the job.

Now he is vilified and ridiculed almost daily in the French press. In a poll published on Thursday by the daily newspaper Le Figaro, only 6 percent of respondents said they would vote for Villepin for president. Six months ago, surveys placed him as the leading contender in the 2007 presidential election.

Thursday's poll showed Socialist Party presidential hopeful Segolene Royal as the beneficiary of the government's disarray, with 34 percent of those surveyed saying they would vote for her as president. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's main rival in the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, was supported by 30 percent. His ambitions were sullied by last fall's arsons and violence in the poor suburbs where many immigrant families live.

Government critics say the retreat on the smoking ban is particularly symptomatic of the current administration's impotence as it enters its final year in office before next spring's presidential election. In a move certain to push the debate beyond the election, the government has asked Parliament to conduct yet another study on the ramifications of the law.

A recent survey by the IFOP polling group found that 78 percent of respondents supported a smoking ban.

Yves Bur, a legislator from Villepin's party who drafted the smoking law, said his main objective was to protect workers. "Passive smoking is very dangerous," he said. "Each year 3,000 to 5,000 people in France die as a result of passive smoking."

Mechiet Hamid, the 40-year-old Algerian proprietor of the Aux Petits Tonneaux bar and a former smoker, said he would welcome a prohibition on smoking in his small bar, where cigarette butts litter the wooden floor and the after-work crowd is enveloped in wisps of smoke.

"When you work eight to 10 hours in a bar, the smoke hurts your eyes, and you always itch," said Hamid, a stocky man with a beefy face and close-cropped hair who knows the tastes of many customers so well that he slides their favorite brand of beer to them before they ask. "When you don't smoke and you work in a place where people smoke, it's just like you're smoking."

But Attrazic, the restaurant association leader and bar owner, said that in addition to threatening the livelihoods of the owners of small rural bars and cafes, a smoking ban would strip the French of an important part of their culture.

"Is it shameful to smoke?" Attrazic asked. "I think that smoking a good cigar with a tasty Armagnac is part of our lifestyle."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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