The Cafe Flore in the Saint Germain neighborhood evokes images of Left Bank intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir dragging on cigarettes while thinking profound thoughts in a blue-tinted haze. But the air in the cafe may get cleaner this fall, when Parliament votes on a bill that would ban smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, much to the ire of many bar owners and French citizens accustomed to their daily dose of coffee with cigarettes.
"Sartre smoked. Colette, George Sand, Marguerite Duras, [Andre] Gide -- they all smoked," said Jean Claude Blondel, manager of the Cafe Flore. "We have a long history of great thinking here, [with] coffee and cigarettes."
Nevertheless, the anti-smoking forces are swirling in Europe. Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway and Sweden have already banned smoking in public places. Finland, Poland, Latvia and Hungary are expected to follow. And in the United States, several states and major cities -- such as Boston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco -- have smoking bans in place. Montgomery County has a ban in place, and the District is considering one.
In 1991, the French government passed a law requiring restaurants and bars to provide nonsmoking areas. And last week, the national French rail service SNCF announced it would prohibit smoking on all trains starting next year.
"It's a change in mentality," said Yves Bur, a leader of the anti-smoking effort in Parliament. "We have a real possibility to make significant progress in the fight against cancer."
According to a recent government study, there are nearly 60,000 smoking-related deaths in France each year.
Yet, some find the law hypocritical, especially when they see politicians smoking cigars in cafes.
"There are other things like the pollution in Paris from cars and factories that are just as bad as smoking, and are the politicians doing anything about that?" Blondel asked. "Cigars, now, that will be hard for the politicians to accept."
Stylish patrons puffing cigars in clubs and cafes may be a tough tradition to break in France. In the 1958 French film "Gigi," based on a novel by Colette and starring Maurice Chevalier, a young woman aspiring to join French high society learns how to select quality cigars and chooses the right one for a rich playboy prince, Gaston Lachaille. Gigi's knowledge of cigars makes her more attractive to Gaston, and soon they marry.
Blondel expects no such happy ending with the ban. "It will be the people who smoke cigars here -- journalists, politicians and artists -- who are going to raise a huff," he said.
To its supporters, the benefits of the prohibition are obvious. The World Health Organization has estimated that the social costs of smoking amount to about 1.1 percent of France's gross domestic product. And Bur, formerly on Parliament's finance and social security commissions, said that the public health care system spends an additional $18.2 million each year because of smoking.
"I think it will be good for public health," said Eric Durand, 36, owner of the Chinon cafe in the Marais district. "But I've already paid 1,500 euros [$1,821] for ventilators because of the winter smog from the smokers in the bar. Actually, I'm afraid of this law because French people will find it difficult to respect."
Bruno Szollosi, 48, an optician and Chinon regular, agreed. "I can't smoke at work, and need to have a space," he said. "If the police stop me, that would be absurd. It's intolerance."
In France, the business of selling cigarettes is reserved for the 29,000 buralistes, or tobacconists, who are licensed to sell tobacco in France's bar-tabacs. The tobacconists protested when cigarette taxes rose in 2003, but now some workers in the industry regard the proposed ban with gloomy inevitability.
"I'd have to change my profession," said Jessy Ramos, 22, as she served up coffee to a group of men smoking at a bar in central Paris. "I've worked only in bars my whole life. This law would be a catastrophe for my profession, and what would I do without my smoke breaks?"
The economic impact of smoking bans is unclear. In Italy, tobacco sales fell 20 percent following the ban on public smoking in January. In Ireland, restaurant revenues decreased around 7.5 percent in the first six months after its smoking ban began in March 2004 but have since begun to recover, according to studies by the Smoke Free Europe partnership. And researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that a smoking ban in Massachusetts did not adversely affect business for restaurants and bars.
Nevertheless, Andre Daguen, head of the Trade Union for Hotel Industries, worries about the effect of the ban on his members.
"We'll gain a few nonsmokers, but we'll lose more," Daguen said. "I don't know what the future will hold. It comes down to a social principle. There's a tradition of smoking after a meal. Do we want to make more of a separation between people?"
Rene le Pope, head of the tobacconist union, said that many tobacco bars have already closed along French borders because of higher cigarettes taxes and cheaper smokes in Belgium and Spain. Without these bars, he said, French culture is threatened.
"A bar-tabac is the fabric that holds together some neighborhoods," Pope said.