Smoke, Smoke, Smoke Le Cigarette

This year began the greatest assault against mankind has been unleashed in the unlikely streets of Paris, Toulouse, and Bordeaux.

Smoking is hereby banned in the nation of France.

News of the smoking ban may come as a shock to most American observers, at least those that don’t immediately skip the International News section of the local paper to see how badly the Knicks got beat last night. Cultural snapshots of the French in the American psyche aren’t particularly numerous, but one of the most indelible ones is that of the erudite French intellectual, sitting in a chair on a sidewalk café wearing a beret and some fruity glasses, sipping a small cup of expensive coffee and smoking a cigarette. That impression, in and of itself, defines the French in American eyes are equally parts distinguished, rebellious, and self-important. And hot, if she’s a chick.

While this may be an unfair generalization of an entire nation, it’s valid because the human race is lazy and wants quick answers to stuff that normally takes effort to research. The French in particular are quite an enigma for Americans, it seems. It’s one of the odder disconnects of international perceptions, really. In theory, France and America have a lot of history in common; they threw in a common cause during Revolutionary times and rarely did international conflicts find the two on opposing ends of the negotiating table. They both had revolutions to solidify the concept of democracy in social life, France’s admittedly being a lot more bloody and prone to heads being chopped off and priests being flayed alive in front of screaming, hysterically orgasmic crowds, and America’s being a bit more about freezing from hunger in Valley Forge. And many felt it was poetic justice that after Lafayette’s contributions to the revolutionary cause at the founding of our civilization, we aided them against Hitler’s blitzkrieg by holding a little sit ‘n’ sip on the beaches of Normandy.

Then something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Perhaps it was Vietnam. The French had it first, mind you, and one suspects a bit of willful blindness when Eisenhower bought the whole mess without checking their feedback rating too closely. (“This Algeria keeps falling apart, many attempts at fixing it will not work; repeated attempts to contact seller failed.”) Perhaps it was the commies; the French were sympathetic to not being caught in the middle and blown up in a vaporizing cloud of nuclear fallout when the US and Russkies traded backslaps, so they figured might as well tip their hand and maybe weasel a 30-hour workweek out of the deal as well. Perhaps it was the Cirque de Soleil.

In any case, France and America seem to have evolved into a love-hate relationship. Americans blatantly generalize the French as unproductive laggards unconcerned with facing up to the real challenges of modern life, having no problem with letting other nations solve the world’s problems while they avoid the costs. France, on the other hand, views America as an imprudent cowboy sloshing around its agenda like an entitlement to stick its middle finger at the world while guzzling barrels of oil and exporting crappy movies to push a capitalistic agenda with such heavy-handed ideological films as National Treasure. Both of these perceptions, of course, are largely right, though one has to make allowances for the existence of Eva Green.

Today, the cultures of America and France often seem to be vastly different in values and priorities. Certainly, a large proportion of this is exaggerated; I’m positive in a chase for a sackful of cash or a quick game of grabass all cultures are equally intrigued. And yet both seem highly dismissive of each other. Americans tend to think of French culture as the bastion of upper-class pretension, with scary, rich, and expensive cuisine and confusingly paced and ultimately bore-ass cinema, though most French movies have an admittedly higher chance of seeing a lot more exposed breasts swaying gently across the screen. The French, of course, are highly defensive about their culture to the point of purging English-influenced words from their language, such as “le hands free,” “le hoodie,” and “le overtime.”

This is particularly odd, since France and America tend to have a lot more in common as leaders of Western Civilization than either think. The differences appear appalling to those undergoing culture shock, but compared to, say, the Sierra Leone, where arson and rape are written into the constitution as “mildly discouraged,” or Kuala Lumpur, where engineering a destructive computer virus or creative a lucrative stock-option scam is A-OK so long as you’re not spitting on the sidewalk, it’s pretty tame. Not enjoying obscure cheese or Disney movies is intellectual chump change when someone in Tokyo who doesn’t spend their business hours looking at tentacle porn is considered out of the mainstream.

Still, with the smoking ban in effect, the French now knows how it feels to have the overreaching iron fist of paternalistic government micromanage the pleasures of everyday life. At least, in this, we stand as brothers.

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