Sweet smell of Paris

Observations on smoke

Paris is one hour ahead of Britain, but to go there just at the moment feels like travelling backwards in time - to a land of smokers and public smoking. Admittedly there's now a slight delay before you encounter the full, anachronistic decadence. In 2006, the French introduced a ban on smoking in such large public enclosures as railway stations, so you must wait until you're outside the front door of the Gare du Nord before you begin to breathe that tangy air, which reminds me of our living room when I was a boy, and Uncle Peter visited. (Uncle Peter was a chain smoker, and, believe me, the past tense is very much appropriate.)

The American columnist Art Buchwald, who'd lived in Paris, called it "the city of lighters". Restaurants and bars are supposed to designate anti-smoking areas, but these often seem purely notional. In my favourite restaurant, Polidor in rue Monsieur le Prince, I reached across two tables to find an ashtray and smoked a cigar after my dinner, just to see whether I could. Nobody even glanced in my direction. In La Colombe on rue de la Paix, I ate a mushroom omelette and chips at the bar while the man next to me smoked from his stock of three packs of Marlboro Lights. At a nearby table, a woman was smoking a cheroot while chatting with her children.

Thirty-eight per cent of French people smoke, as opposed to 25 per cent of Britons, and my Francophilia is such that I long assumed they could do it with impunity. French smokers look more plausible and healthier than our own. They seem to be the stylish and intellectual kin of smokers such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Belmondo or Delon. Smoking symbolises the charming perversity that also makes them drink coffee in tiny cups and close the Louvre on Tuesdays.

In fact, the habit kills 65,000 French citizens a year. From February 2008, the creeping smoking ban will become absolute, and it will be impossible to smoke in bars and restaurants.

"It's going to be really interesting to see whether it's enforceable," an American friend of mine, resident in Paris, told me with a rather evil little smile on his face. He has twice been chucked out of the Gare du Nord for smoking. "I came here from California to get away from that kind of thing."

Whether it's enforceable or not, I see an opening over the next six months for a nimble British travel operator: smoking holidays in Paris. The tour parties might take in a round of tabacs; they might visit some of the English pubs, like the Frog and Rosbif on rue St Denis, where they can once again watch a Premiership football match in a pub while drinking and smoking. Or they might go to the hallowed shrines of Parisian smoking such as Les Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, where Sartre worked and smoked undeterred by a warning that he would lose his legs if he didn't stop.

The attraction might be increased by the fact that, as from 14 November, Eurostar will take only two hours and 15 minutes to reach Paris from London. Paris is coming closer, but then again, from February 2008 it will be that little bit less Parisian.

Andrew Martin's latest novel, "Murder at Deviation Junction", is published by Faber & Faber (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix