The unusual protest grabbed French media attention as hundreds of State-licensed tobacconists, known as buralistes in France, demonstrated outside the French Senate, Wednesday, as senators debated a health bill one of whose measures would prohibit tobacco companies from dressing up their products in often colourful branded packaging.
Plain tobacco packaging is already in force in Australia where health lobbyists claim the measure has helped reduce tobacco consumption although, coupled as it was with a hike in tobacco prices, some tobacco libertarians argue the Australian government was kicking into an open goal.
French tobacconist outlets, known as “tabacs,” are easily recognised by the iconic red carrot-shaped sign outside premises, hence the use of carrots during Wednesday’s protest. Tabacs are often run in conjunction with a bar, cafe, betting shop (PMU) or newsagents. The tobacconists fear the French government is heading down the same path as Australia, in the process putting their livelihoods, and what is often the sole remaining social hub in many French villages, at risk.
Hence Wednesday’s demonstration when the buralistes, borrowing a tactic often used by French farmers protesting against low agricultural prices, dumped an estimated four tonnes of symbolic carrots on the streets of Paris.
The protest appears to have worked, at least for now, with France 24 reporting the Senate appeared to backtrack on the health bill, having deleted the clause that would require cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging. Additional anti-smoking measures will instead include increasing the size of public health warnings on tobacco products in line with EU legislation.
Last weekend the buralistes used a different tactic to highlight their grievance when they temporarily disabled a number of speed cameras in the Midi-Pyrénées and Corrèze regions in the south of France using plastic bags and sticky tape, adding stickers urging the government, urging “Arrệtez d’emmerder les Français,” the (polite) translation of which is, “Stop harassing the French!”
The tobacconists’ thinking was that if the French government thought it could do without revenue from tobacco sales, then why should government coffers benefit from speeding tickets?
In France, a pack of 20 cigarettes, depending on brand, costs around 6.50 euros (about $7 at current exchange rates). With the sale of tobacco remaining a state controlled function, there’s no point in searching around for discounted cigs as the price is the same whether in Paris, Poitiers or Pau.
By comparison, in Ireland, another country that’s set to make plain tobacco packaging compulsory from May 2017, a 20-pack will set a smoker back an eye-watering €10.
The buralistes see this as writing-on-the-wall both for themselves and their countrymen and women addicted to the weed, arguing that plain packaging, coupled with what they regard as an almost inevitable price-hike, will force smokers to turn to potentially even more lethal illegally smuggled cigarettes.
Despite all the health campaigns, smoking bans and regular inflation-busting price rises for tobacco, France tops the European league table for young smokers. Around 26 percent of French 15-year-olds declaring themselves to be regular smokers, according to Comité National Contre le Tabagisme, the French National Committee against Smoking.
And what of all these carrots? Rather than let them rot on the streets of Paris, they’ll be put to good use. Liberation reports they’ll be used to feed the horses of France’s Republican Guard.