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Cafés au lait, sans smoking

Once unthinkable, but next week, most indoor places in France will be smoke-free.

PARIS - Starting next week, one of France's most iconic institutions - the smoky café - will be but a hazy memory.

The extension of France's smoking ban to bars, discotheques, restaurants, hotels, casinos and cafés on Jan. 1 marks a momentous cultural shift in a country where thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once held court while clutching cigarettes in Left Bank cafés.

For smokers, this is the most distressing part of a phased smoking ban that began last February in workplaces, schools, airports, hospitals and other "closed and covered" public places such as train stations.

But many bartenders and restaurant staffers are looking forward to breathing easier, and to clothes that don't stink of seeped-in odors from the clouds of smoke where they work.

Just about anywhere indoors will be off-limits for smoking, except for homes, hotel rooms, and sealed smoking chambers at establishments that decide to provide them.

"The French culture associated with smoking is a 20th-century thing, but we won't forget the experience," ex-smoker Lisa Zane, a Chicago-born singer who lives in Paris, said at Le Fumoir (The Smoking Den) restaurant and bar behind the Louvre.

"Smoking seems insane now - we have to adapt."

The Health Ministry says that one in two regular smokers here dies of smoking-related illness, and that about 5,000 nonsmokers die each year of passive smoking. About a quarter of France's 60 million people are smokers.

The ban is likely to mean more unsightly cigarette butts on sidewalks and in gutters. British American Tobacco's French arm on Wednesday began a pilot program in and near Paris of putting ashtrays outside bars where tobacco products are sold.

Countries such as Italy, Spain, Belgium, Britain and Ireland already have smoking bans. But it's tough to imagine the style-conscious French bundling up in blankets to smoke on chilly restaurant terraces, as some Londoners have.

Many restaurateurs, café owners and disco operators fear lost business: Smokers who light up with a countertop morning coffee, on the dance floor, or after a meal make up a huge customer base.

"There will be a drop, certainly. The tobacco-bar is part of the French tradition," said Christophe Mgo, owner of Le Marigny bar in northwest Paris. Customers who smoke "will surely stay less time, and they will only drink one coffee or beer, instead of two."

A national union of disco owners has said it expects a 5 percent to 8 percent decline in business initially, and has urged the government to send pamphlets to police to show "understanding" in their enforcement of the ban.

About 10,000 protesters, mainly tobacco vendors, marched across Paris last month in an unsuccessful effort to persuade lawmakers to add flexibility to the new prohibitions.

In a minor concession, the government says it won't fully enforce the new ban on New Year's Day - giving smokers the right to puff away until Jan. 2.

The government is increasingly encouraging smokers to quit. A traveling campaign went to seven cities in November and December, offering rapid-fire meetings with antismoking experts - a bit like speed-dating sessions.

For those who continue to smoke, the bitterness will take time to fade over what they see as an infringement of their freedoms.

"Great idea," Daniel Marierouyer, 45, a smoker, said sarcastically at Le Fumoir. "I love it when things get imposed on us: Buckle your seat belt, don't smoke, you need to be healthy, you're too fat."