“Franchement c’est sexy”

“Franchement c’est sexy” – perhaps in France, yes, but why is smoking viewed so differently in Britain?

I’ve returned from one year in Paris, admittedly a bit chubbier around the edges than I was prior to my having left, with a new found love for any type of stronger than necessary cheese and a more refined wine palate – both of which I can assure you create havoc in the life of a student who fast realises a love for chilled Sancerre isn’t shared by your bank account. So aside from the slightly tighter jeans and a more emphatic love than EVER before for men with ‘ze facial hairs’, I have acquired one new tendency that I am not too proud of; Marlboro lights – menthol where possible, and if it’s an Ice Ball menthol, it may as well be Christmas.

I suppose we should start by breaking down my time in the city of lights and beautiful people. If within 1 minute of arriving at Gare du Nord  you do not see someone with “une clope'” in their mouth, you need to re-board your Eurostar because I promise you you are in the wrong place and your ETA does not make sense for a reason. Put simply, the smoking culture is embedded in France. I would go as far as to say – and I’m sure would receive considerable rebuke for doing so – that it is very firmly rooted within French culture itself. Somewhere between Sartre, La Tour Eiffel and Dom Perignon stands the cigarette. And it stands tall.

Naturally, people smoking outside after a couple won’t make you flinch. What had me more taken aback was the way in which French students and professors alike would discuss the electoral debate outside SciencesPo (arguably one of the most reputable French grande écoles) whilst sharing a cigarette together. French doctors outside hospitals would be stubbing cigarettes in between what I presume were their clinics and ward rounds. What I am trying to say here, is that the conditions which are widespread and used to categorise ‘smokers’ and ‘non-smokers’ here in the UK simply do not apply in France. In the latter, it ought to be taken at face value, you would be wasting your time were you to try and dissect their political standing, educational level and socio economic background. These stereotypes simply aren’t viable. In France you can walk up to anyone and ask for a cigarette, from the waiter to Hollande or Sarko should you be a perfect 10 on the confidence scale. Let’s face it, it is a cracking tool if you think someone’s a bit alright and French boys clearly know this (and a few other things) of old.

The crux of my argument is WHY in Paris, when I see someone smoking, do I have zero negative connotations? I don’t presume them to be remotely ignorant – in fact,

I don’t bat an eyelid. In London, bar students (young – wild – free) and fast paced, stressed faced businessmen in the city, least we forget any self professed ‘artiste’ also, I have a number of unpleasant (and wholly unfair) preconceived notions that spring to my mind when someone’s smoking, and I assure you nothing about any of them scream sexy. Many of my British guy friends and my Dad also clamour around the notion that an attractive girl + cigarette = no longer attractive. They live by this equation, and yet would not think any less of a slender and leggy French woman doing so…they would continue to stare in the way that makes women wonder how they think we don’t notice.

I can attribute this to culture but also the successful efforts or lack thereof of bodies within society – most obviously the government and other not for profit organisations, who have moulded and embedded immediate, knee jerk correlations to smoking that reverberate subconsciously. Whilst here in Britain these immediate thought processes often tend to be negative, in France the immediate thought process remains that of apathy. The French people I know who live on 40 a day are some of the most educated people you could find – they know what they’re doing to their body, whether they accept it or not is a different matter, but they enjoy it, they’re happy for now, and they don’t want anyone dictating how they should live their lives.

It’s really no surprise that the highest percentage of smokers fall within the 20- 24 age group since 1986 here in the UK. The justification that the odd one won’t hurt you and the consequences are far away in the future are just too simple and something we are all susceptible to.  And yet with this in mind, I do think that many of the stereotypes we have can be brutally unfair. Let us be frank here : I appreciate if you did a survey of people on the dole tomorrow, many of them will have had a  few cigarettes in the past year, but I feel the same would apply to those in the top tax bracket too. In the same way, why should a British woman suddenly become unappealing whereas a French woman just that little bit more edgy, sexy even? I am not entirely comfortable with judging people so naively anymore. Yes I will never be comfortable when a 12 year old strolls past me with a roll up in hand, but across the board, who am I or anyone else for that matter to judge so many other things based on one facet?

 

By Khyati Modgil

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