[12 December 2006]
Appreciating a glass of wine whilst enjoying a smoke may seem scandalous to budding oenologists, but the French have been doing this since foreign stereotyping entered the modern era. With France set to become the next European country to succumb to the anti-tobacco domino effect, however, French smokers are about to quite literally take to the streets.
The French sense of culture seems very much rooted in the earth that makes up the French territory. Perhaps because of its geographical position at the crossroads of Europe, the French notion of nationhood soon integrated the concept of the law of the soil (droit du sol in French, ius soli in Latin). On the ground, at street level, pounding the earth in public protestation has almost part of one’s civic duties, la manifestation acting as a middle chamber between the lower house, l’Assemblée nationale, and the senate. And this can be done to great media effect, as the student demonstrations this year demonstrated.
What goes on in the ground has also helped define French culture. But far more goes on in the soil than the slow ageing of the elixir of life. Two years ago, a fully functioning cinema was discovered in the catacombs of Paris. The subterranean clandestine cinema covered an area of more than 300 square metres and even had a bar and restaurant area. This may all sound terribly romantic but burial dumping grounds are not particularly well-known for their air conditioned facilities or pavement terraces, so where did all the guerrilla cinema-goers light up? Perhaps they refrained from such a dangerous activity. Perhaps. But this seems doubtful.
Let me try and explore this point by staying beneath the surface of the earth, but climbing up from the municipal ossuary to ‘the underground’; not the Paris subway system, but the hotbed of cultural and social resistance, or if you prefer the hush-hush version of street level defiance.
As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton recount in their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, after World War I Paris became a haven for black American jazz musicians, many of whom gained celebrity status. But then came World War II and the Nazi occupation. Although many of the black musicians had to flee or face internment, jazz standards continued to be played as protest songs. One particular group of jazz-fuelled resistors took their name from a Cab Calloway scat and called themselves the Zazous. They were known for their long hair, glam fashion sense, and for smuggling their records into cafés off the Champs Elysées and in the Latin Quarter. It wasn’t long before the Vichy collaborationists held the Zazous in their sites, hunting them down and literally scalping them. This pushed their activities into the caves and sous-sols of Paris and in these places, one could posit, both the discothèque and the idea of ‘underground music’ were born.
These literal underground venues can still be found in Paris, such as La Maroquinerie (‘the tannery’) in the 20th district. It was there that last September I went to see Hot Chip. It’s an intimate place and ideal for seeing a band still high from Mercury Prize nomination but not yet charging over-inflated prices. Entrance to the venue is down a flight of stairs (as you would expect) and through a single door. A simple structure provides you with slightly elevated standing room if moshing in the pit isn’t your thing.
The place soon filled out with a keen Parisian crowd doing what Parisians do best: smoking. It was then that it dawned on me that the elevated area I was standing on was made out of wood and that the solitary door doubled as both the main entrance and fire exit. And, of course, there were no windows BECAUSE I WAS UNDERGROUND! You may think that this type of reaction is extremely uncool of somebody at a Hot Chip gig. Well, I have no qualms admitting that I have reached an age that has put me firmly in touch with my own mortality (though not yet at the age where I have nothing left to lose).
I am myself a reformed smoker but for years I resisted giving up. “I’m no quitter!” I would shout at those who would scold my habit. Because I knew that the new century would bring with it a fresh virulent form of health fascism, I had a whole battery of weapons ready for my defence. I based my whole philosophy of life in the screenwritings of Robert Mark Kamen. Indeed, in my life little art has come close to offering me such insight as that which is given to us in Karate Kid. How can you deny the sagacity of Miyagi explaining to Daniel LaRusso the merits of personal focus?
Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no”. You karate do “guess so”…
Either you smoke do “yes”, or you smoke do “no”. But you cannot smoke do “guess so”. There was a time I would even laugh at the fate of relapsed reformed-smokers what with all their ‘born-again do-goody tutting’ every time you want to light up when they reform and all their ‘ah wells’ as if their surrender was unavoidable when they relapse. What did they expect – had they ever caught a fly with chopsticks? Of course not, so how could they expect to accomplish something so impossible?
That was then. Now I’ve given up cigarettes but allow myself the occasional Cuban cigar. Does that make me a smoker do “guess so”? Perhaps, though I would argue my interest in cigars lies in the aroma-enhancing experience they bring to a Bas-Armagnac. And because I think they make me look cool when out in fancy Parisian brasseries.
But French culture as we know it is about to disappear in a puff of non-smoke. As from the 1st February 2007, smoking in public places will be banned and France will join a growing list of European nations leaving smokers out in the cold. The first European nation to impose an outright smoking ban on all public places was the Republic of Ireland. From the 29th March 2004 it became illegal to smoke in anything from a pub to a company car on the Emerald Isle.
Hang on a minute. In 1991 Claude Evin, France’s then Secretary of State for Social Affairs, ushered in an early version of a law banning smoking in all public spaces. So what’s the difference between the 15 year-old loi and this new version? Well, as far as I can tell, not much. Except that this time we’re assured that the law shall be enforced. If this is the case, then France’s tobacco-consuming culture is set for a definite upheaval, undoubtedly more so than in Ireland or, indeed, Britain which also has recently voted in favour of an all-out ban.
When I first came to France as a young man 15 or so years ago, I was surprised to see perfect strangers stop each other in the street and ask for a cigarette. Cigarettes were considered expensive in Britain even back then, and this behaviour of casual sharing was something that was quite literally foreign to me. At the time, however, the gesture seemed to embody all the positive values of the cigarette: it was a symbol of solidarity and freedom. After all, when soldiers liberate an occupied people they offer cigarettes, don’t they? Or they did once, didn’t they? Soldiers in the Second World War were given cigarettes in their rations. Perhaps this was simply a romantic vision that played up to my bohemian expectations of life in France: sitting around a table talking about music and anarchy with the likes of Jacques Brel, Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens while we all shared a large ashtray. Okay, so I had been schooled at the University of Cliché, but I had also seen the photos of the holy chanson trinity taken in 1969 (http://www.georges-brassens.com/1969.htm) and from what I witnessed on the streets the sociability of the cigarette still seemed to hold true.
Since that time, however, taxation on tobacco has seen the average price of a packet of cigarettes shoot up by over 350 percent. Salaries haven’t. And yet there are still those that will stop you in the street to ask for un clope much to growing annoyance. Once smokers have been pushed out of the bars and restaurants and quite thoroughly into the streets, then surely this will make for rich picking grounds and perhaps increased problematic encounters.
Mind you, this hasn’t been the case in Ireland. The only tension there seems to be amongst groups of smokers standing outside the pub is sexual tension. Smirting – a mixture of smoking and flirting – has sprung from the arbitrary contact between sexually active people who are brought together by their habit. There is no doubt that the shared addiction takes both the cringe and sleaze factors out of those opening chat up lines. And according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, more young women in Ireland smoke than men, so it would seem that things are looking up for Humphrey Bogart wanabees.
Of course, Serge Gainsbourg was already singing about the amorous effects of smoking back in ‘80. In his song Dieu est un fumeur de havanes, a duet with the smouldering Catherine Deneuve, God is a smoker of Cuban cigars who even smokes at night just like Serge:
Dieu est un fumeur de havanes
Je vois ses nuages gris
Je sais qu’il fume même la nuit
Comme moi ma chérie
And after being chastised by Deneuve for bringing tears to her eyes (all dodgy double entendres fully intended), even Serge has to admit that smoking is heaven in more ways than one:
Dieu est un fumeur de havanes
C’est lui-même qui m’a dit
Que la fumée envoie au paradis
Je le sais ma chérie
Indeed, the heart attack that killed Gainsbourg was undoubtedly brought on by his chain-smoking and this just two months after the 1991 loi Evin was ratified – albeit not enforced.
But perhaps romance hasn’t been dragged out of smoking just yet. Smirting may well be set to take France by storm. That’s all Parisians need: another excuse to stand in the street in loving embrace. The question that remains is what the French will call smirting—can I be the first to suggest drumer (from draguer to flirt and fumer to smoke)? Although in this globalised age, I’m sure they’ll go with a Frenchified version of the verb smirter which pronounced in the French way actually sounds quite naughty.
In the meantime, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable at underground gigs come next March.