Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Holding my breath

Tomorrow (or, more accurately, in roughly twenty minutes) the much-dreaded, much-antipated country-wide workplace smoking ban goes into effect in France.

I can't wait. Despite growing up with two cigarette smoking parents, who have since thankfully both given up the habit, I have never gotten used to second-hand smoke. I notice right away when one of my colleagues comes back reeking of smoke from a cigarette break, and someone smoking behind a closed door two offices down the hall is enough to make me wrinkle my nose in disgust. Nothing annoys me more than being served a mouthwatering entrée in some intimate Paris restaurant just to have the person at the table next to me, a mere elbows' length away, light up upon finishing his dessert.

I'm undoubtedly over-sensitive and I try not to complain too much, knowing I'll come across as a self-righteous Yankee. I was therefore secretly thrilled when the government announced an indoor workplace smoking ban back in November. No more holding my breath when I walk past the break room! My clothes will no longer need to be aerated after a visit to the coffee machine! I will finally be able to enjoy a meal at the chic restaurant across the street without staring purposefully at the packet of cigarettes on my neighbor's table, wondering if they'll let me finish my foie gras before assaulting my sense of smell!

Alas, this is France, where no law is passed without qualifying clauses that try vainly to satisfy anyone and everyone who might complain. There's a lot of talk in France of the exception culturelle, the cultural exception, or right of the French to use protectionism to promote French culture and French artists. I think they got it backwards: the cultural exception is really a culture of exceptions, a French penchant for bending the rules and creating loopholes.

Thus the smoking ban that I was so looking forward to got the initial bite taken out of it. For a year, restaurants, bars and hotels will be exempt. I'll still be personally grateful that my office will no longer have a smoking area just behind the reception desk, but tourists to Paris will notice no change whatsover.

It's only a year's exemption, and I admire the government for going through with it despite the upcoming elections. We'll wait and see whether the new law is actually followed, since "the rules are the rules" isn't necessarily an argument that carries much weight in France. However, once a regulation is recognized as being for the common good, attitudes change. The ban is popular, and I'm hoping and expecting it will entice many smokers to quit smoking entirely.

Of course, I make fun of the French with their exceptions and compromises, but I'm not convinced that in America we do things any better. Unpopular issues are usually dealt with by the states, often through ballot initiatives or worse, the state court system. The issues are simplified, the sides polarized; lobby groups gather together camps of supporters and the strongest or best-funded wins. Rarely do legislators get the chance to publicly and honestly debate an issue and come to a potentially unpopular decision. The result is a patchwork of different laws across the country, no more coherent than in France: California may go one direction through a ballot initiative, and New York another by a court decision. Smoking bans in the US were first implemented on a municipal level, which the French would find confusing and fundamentally contrary to their idea of liberty and equality.

I don't really care how we get a smoking ban, as long as in some not-too-distant future I can count on always being able to properly smell and taste the food I order in a Paris restaurant. In the meantime, it's becoming more and more acceptable to complain about it, and that's progress enough for me.

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