By CHRISTINE OLLIVIER
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 8, 2006; 9:55 PM
PARIS -- The days of cigarette-friendly France are about to go up in smoke.
The prime minister announced Sunday that a ban on smoking in schools, offices and other public buildings will start in February, while restaurants, dance clubs and some bars have until 2008 to comply.
"I am convinced the French people are now ready," said Dominique de Villepin, joining Ireland, Spain, Britain and Italy which have adopted similar measures. "The issue is ripe in our country, given the experiences that we know of elsewhere."
Villepin told LCI television the ban will be ordered "by decree" in the next few days _ a step that allows the government to avert an explosive parliamentary debate ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year.
The French treasure their right to light up in cafes, bars or restaurants, and have sought to cast the debate as one of freedoms being infringed. Even the French presidency's Web site shows a photo of a young President Jacques Chirac with a cigarette in his mouth.
The new rule will affect schools, train stations, airports, offices, public buildings and other enclosed public spaces starting Feb. 1, Villepin said. Restaurants, discos and special cafes where tobacco is sold will be given an "adjustment" period until Jan. 1, 2008.
Smokers who violate the ban will face fines of 75 euros ($95 at current exchange rates) while proprietors of buildings where the violations take place will be subject to twice that, Villepin said.
"And we will mobilize a sizable inspection team" to ensure that the law is respected, he added.
Villepin said public health was at stake. An estimated 60,000 people die in France from smoking-related illness each year, with another 5,000 deaths attributed to the effects of second-hand smoke, he said.
"Everybody understands today how we need to move toward this public health necessity," Villepin said. "What the professionals in these industries want is that the state indicate clearly what it wants _ well, that's done."
Villepin said the state-run health care system will pay some costs of anti-smoking treatments for smokers who want to quit, while state-run hospitals will increase medical consultation services to help people kick the habit.
Bar owners, tobacco vendors, restaurateurs and others in the service and hospitality industries have vowed to fight anti-smoking measures, claiming that bans would hurt their businesses.
A top French association of the hospitality industry business, UMIH, said in a statement Sunday the ban would be ineffective.
"Once again, it is the cafe, restaurant and discotheque sector that is the scapegoat of all society's ills," the group said.