When the Euro Zone authorities put the new currency into circulation on January 1, 2002, I, and the Euro Zone authorities, expected it to generate a plague of problems, ranging from conversion errors to price gouging to tantrums. It didn’t.
In fact, I was shocked at how smooth and painless the transition was. Literally overnight, every bank, cash register, ATM, vending machine and beggar’s cup in France instantly and seamlessly switched from francs to euros.
Five years later, I was reshocked at how easily the country adopted the now-taken-for-granted no-smoking law. From one day to the next, tobacco consumption was banned in all public places, obliging anyone in need of a nicotine fix to take it outside.
Judging from how often and blithely France’s cigarette addicts had defied all previous no-smoking rules, I was expecting a spontaneous insurrection, a wave of uncivil disobedience that would add new flavor (and especially odor) to the term “entitlement.” But it wasn’t to be: the vast majority of smokers just shrugged their shoulders, put on their parkas and hit the sidewalks.
As a Paris resident, I was pleasantly surprised. And as a humorist, I was bitterly disappointed, because pleasant surprises make lousy material for ridicule.
Fortunately for me, there was a non-vast minority, a small — and impressively vocal considering their impeded lung power — group of militant smokers who continued to defend what they saw, from their hazy point of view, as their “rights.”
Their arguments took many forms, ranging from the predictable to the hallucinatory. In the former category, we had the expected outburst of indignation from smokers who, human nature being what it is, took the whole thing personally.
“Letters to the editor” columns filled up faster than an ashtray on “Mad Men” with tirades about how all respect for citizens who choose to smoke had been destroyed — torched, sucked dry, reduced to ashes, tossed in the gutter and stomped on like a… like a… Hmm. Like something you’d burn up and throw away… Dang! I just can’t think of an analogy here.
France’s cigarette-smoking, letter-writing population wholeheartedly embraced a common logical fallacy that Scott Adams describes in his book The Joy of Work with this example: “If you let your barber cut your hair, the next thing you know he’ll be lopping off your limbs!”
Over and over, the non-cigarette-smoking, letter-reading population was warned: inevitably, our criminally insane government would soon ban alcohol. Then they would begin dictating how much fat and sugar we can have in our diets. Then they would force us all to participate in group exercises every morning. Then the Ministry of Truth would install a telescreen in every home…
We’re still waiting for these dire forecasts to come true. And to pass the time while we’re waiting, we can enjoy the predictions of those who invoked Godwin’s law and sagely announced that in the very near future all smokers would be rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
As far as I know, that didn’t happen either. Of course, what these butt-heads (including one sociologist who should have known better but wrote a “Modest Proposal”-style essay on the topic in Libération) were failing or refusing to recognize was that the no-smoking law is not anti-smoker, but anti-smoke.
Alcohol consumption is not going to be banned in public because there’s no second-hand booze. Knocking back a boilermaker doesn’t put any Jim Beam in the bloodstream of the person on the next barstool. I know a few people who probably regret this fact, but it’s true.
Speaking of bars, the people who made their livings in smoke-filled rooms, predictably, feared for their livelihoods under the new statute. France’s café owners cried out as one, micturating and moaning that the customers would stay away if they couldn’t smoke. And ignoring the likelihood that many members of the non-smoking majority were avoiding cafés specifically because they don’t enjoy macerating in a rank, foul cloud of carcinogens. For some reason.
Fatuous extrapolations and unfounded fears aside, some other pro-tobacco crusaders came up with inspiringly original arguments. I heard more than once that the stench of tobacco smoke in nightclubs was good, in fact a necessity, because it masked the stench of sweat from the dance floor.
There was even a company that briefly marketed a machine that artificially generated the smell of tobacco smoke. They ran ads in the papers targeting club owners, warning that their customers were going to be repulsed by the putrid, revolting miasma of wet armpits. So the only sensible solution was to compound it with the even more putrid, more revolting miasma of wet butts.
Two wrongs make a right! Or rather, two repellents make a lure!
Venturing one step further into Absurdo Land, one concerned citizen wrote to my daily newspaper to point out that the no-smoking law posed an unconscionable danger to (you’ll never guess how this sentence ends) small children.
Yes. The logic, if you can call it that, was this: mothers pushing children in strollers on city sidewalks are obliged to swerve around groups of smokers gathered at building entrances, forcing them, the mothers, out into the street and thrusting them, the children, into the path of oncoming traffic.
According to this activist, it was a choice between smoke in the halls or blood in the streets. But he or she was only partly right: on any given day, there are indeed clusters of puffers on virtually every block, but they are always glad to make room for tot-toting moms. After all, it’s no real trouble, it’s the polite thing to do, and a passing pram makes a great ashtray.
But my absolute favorite anti-anti-smoking argument came from a group devoted to preserving the environment and biodiversity. The group was the LPMPG, which stands for Ligue de Protection des Grillons du Métro Parisien (League for the Protection of the Crickets of the Paris Métro), and their grievance was that the crickets living in the Métro tunnels feed largely on cigarette butts, so banning tobacco down there was dooming the adorable little critters to extinction.
This league, and the Métro crickets themselves, are real. They (the league, not the crickets) even have an explanatory web page in English.
The insects supposedly migrated to Paris in the back of produce trucks and took up residence in the tunnels of Métro lines 9 and 3, where their chirping can be heard at certain stations, when it’s not drowned out by the sound of the trains. Or the sound of conversation, buskers, panhandlers, raving drunks, snoring bums, pickpocket alerts, people with headphones singing tunelessly along to insipid pop songs… Frankly, it’s a marvel that the bugs weren’t already doomed to extinction by mass, lemming-like suicide.
Today, the better part of a decade later, the crickets are still chirruping, although with somewhat less joie de vivre than before, and the diehard smokers are still stoically exposing themselves to pneumonia and melanoma along with all the other lethal afflictions listed on the pack.
But given their former vehemence and creativity (the smokers, not the crickets), I have to wonder: one of the hot-button issues in France today is the right to suicide. Where do the outspoken smokers stand on that question? Besides on the sidewalk…
Paris Update contributor Nick Hammond writes: “Greatly enjoyed David’s article. I would add that I have observed some bars blatantly disregarding the no-smoking rule, not least in a small establishment in the ninth arrondissement. There must be a moral tale there, because it burnt down a couple of years ago, and has never reopened.”
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.