Just Above Sunset
August 21, 2005 - Smoke Saved!

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

Our Man in Paris is Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. His weekly columns appear here and often in a slightly different version the next day on his site from Paris, with photographs.

PARIS, Saturday, August 20: - JUST over a year ago I fell into Le Smoke in the Rue Delambre.  I could have stopped in the Rosebud or Le Scott, a couple of hard booze troquets, but I was looking for the unashamed, the incorrect, an unapologetically Parisian kind of joint, upfront enough in this day and age to hang out a sign created to dissuade whiners and victims, who might be seeking clean air to breathe and pastel parasols on their cocktail swizzle sticks.


The café-restaurant has a wood front that looks like it was hand carved by sturdy elves in Alsace, meant to impress their cousins from the Schwarzwald cuckoo clock industry across the river.  Light wood brown outside, it looks as solid as an ethnic Swiss bank, but the painted Smoke on its front looks like somebody woozily dragged too deeply on it.


Last year I went by Le Smoke because it was in danger of extinction.  The building it's in is owned by the social conglomo Hôpitaux de Paris, which wasn't going to renew the lease because it wanted to remodel the building as a tenement for nurses.


This is Montparnasse, this Rue Delambre.  Next door to Smoke is the Hotel des Bains, a place where Simone de Beauvoir hung her towel.  At the time, in 1935, the hotel probably only had a bath per floor.  I laugh every time I see the sign.  But nurses?  Next door to the Hotel des Bains?


Nine years ago Lazhar Benhabhab borrowed the name 'Smoke' from the movie written by Paul Auster, and created a bar that is not so fine and nice, but is sturdy and a bit ratty and has some odd corners and weird Swiss windows, but you can sit or stand at the bar or sit at a table and eat for a reasonable price, and it's good enough if you don't mind everybody being on top of each other and thus noisy, and well, smoky too.


In case you forget, if you can see across the smallish room, there are a few black and white photo repros of jazz guys, say Dexter Gordon, with butts hanging out, smoke twisting white against the black. I n a way, too bad the inside of Smoke is in color.


So, last year Lazhar was getting tossed out, also from his apartment upstairs, and the three employees were to get the boot too.  To look at the place you wouldn't think so, but 'friends of Smoke' went to the other side of the cemetery to see local mayor Pierre Castagnou, and convinced him that Le Smoke is a major headquarters of the cultural life of Montparnasse - no other place like it, blah blah, and so on.  It's an argument that gets recycled often.


They copped a write-up in Le Parisien, organized a committee, got out a petition, put up a Web site kind of, and held grimly on.  Smoke got an indefinite reprieve last August, and added more culture to its menu.


But away from Montparnasse other actors were stirring.  The government, the French one at the south end of the Pont de la Concorde, suddenly announced that it felt like taking over the Saint-Vincent de Paul hospital at Port Royal and stuffing the Quai d'Orsay into it.  It's all we need - 2000 diplos in Montparnasse!


This Saint-Vincent is a hospital that seems to have a perpetual strike on, but one that is also considered to be one of the best maternity units in France and has special facilities for handicapped kids. T here's a huge banner hanging off the front of the Mairie of the 14th arrondissement that says, 'Hands off Saint-Vincent.'  The banner is thanks to Pierre Castagnou of course.


Summer is a time for slipping silly stuff under the door, so it was only a couple of weeks ago that UMP deputy Yves Bur decided to get some publicity for himself, by threatening to push for a vote in September for an Anglo-Saxon type ban on smoking in France.  This is to be in all public places, in bars, in cafés, work areas, maybe even prisons, and including Le Smoke, no less.


Deputy Bur got his 24 hours of fame from the few Parisians still in town but he was eclipsed by the news a week later that an inventory at the Saint-Vincent hospital turned up 351 fetuses and premature baby bodies, stored in the mortuary of the hospital.  The announcement was made jointly by the minister of health and Hôpitaux de Paris.


Le Monde hinted that the news was orchestrated by the government, but those concerned could not figure out why.  Folks trying to save the hospital from being dismantled are worried that the process will be speeded up, helped along by the rotten publicity.  Recent history has seen the sale of three Left Bank hospitals for 175.4 million euros in favor of Hôpitaux de Paris.


Meanwhile in the Rue Delambre, Lazhar Benhabhab decided not to go on holiday this summer.  He was afraid some bad news would drag him back from the seaside.  But last week he got a call from Hôpitaux de Paris who told him they decided to put the nurses elsewhere, and would renew his lease for the standard time period.


Well, the rent is going up and it doesn't include the apartment any more, but what's the difference?  Maybe he'll raise the prices a bit.  When asked, the mayor suggested a zoning deal had something to do with change of heart by Hôpitaux de Paris.


Lazhar Benhabhab pushes the National cash register back so I have a bit more space at the bar where I'm jammed between it and a pillar and then he gets me a big glass of orange juice.  Others are dining at the bar, having big plates of steak-frites that I see cost eight euros.  The place is full and so noisy you can't be sure music is playing, but it is, probably Stones.


The bar runs too close to the door, so that customers coming in have to climb over patrons before they can find a place to stand and lean over those sitting at the bar.  Nobody cares, everybody yaks.


There's a trio of tables out on the sidewalk too.  One has a couple with a dog.  The windows are open, the room is high with black beams up there, and a ceiling ventilator sweeps the smoke around, but it's a Paris place and everybody is with whoever they're with, so they are lively and not self-consciously cool.  This is not the snooty Quartier Latin; this is Montparnasse, where the mayor is interested in culture.  And hospitals.

Smoke in Montparnasse - Rue Delambre

Smoke in Montparnasse - Rue Delambre

This is not the snooty Quartier Latin. 
This is Montparnasse.

Montparnasse, August 2005

Montparnasse, August 2005

Montparnasse, August 2005

St. Andre - August 2005

Photos and Text Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis




Editor's Note:


From l'Agence France-Presse (AFP) by way of The Tocqueville Connection


Smoking To Be Banned On All French Trains By Year's End 

Initially posted Monday, 15 August 2005 10:44:00 GMT


Short form?  No smoking cars on the TGV any longer.  Drat.


From Caterer & Hotelkeeper (UK) -

France to vote on total smoking ban

(15 August 2005 10:51)


France is the latest country to move closer to a full smoking ban in public places.


The bill, which is supported by 60 National Assembly lawmakers, is intended to stub out smoking in the country's pubs, restaurants and bars. It will be voted on by France's parliament this autumn.


France would be the sixth country in Europe to bring in a blanket ban, after Italy, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Sweden.  "We need to move forward in our fight against the public scourge of tobacco," said Yves Bur, deputy of the ruling Conservative UMP party.


But the law is expected to face stiff opposition in a country where half the population of 15- to 24-year-olds smoke and some operators see smoking as integral to the country's café culture.


"There will be opposition - maybe not from French smokers but from MPs and tobacco producers," said a spokeswoman for the French Committee against Tobacco. "But we hope [the law] will be implemented quickly." 


What do the French think?  Caterer & Hotelkeeper asks some French folks in London -


Raymond Blanc, chef-patron, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Oxfordshire

"The French are very good at making rules but they're also good at breaking them. I don't think it will be followed and will be very difficult to enforce. In rural France it will be harder, because there's such an old tradition of having a fag in the local café."


Philipe Lhermitte, general manager, Mon Plaisir restaurant, Covent Garden, London

"The French like to complain and strike about things, but they'll have to accept it. Europe is going the way of America, where everyone is suing each other and businesses are afraid of the consequences."


Pierre Stock, restaurant manager, Racine, London SW3

"I can understand banning smoking in restaurants but I don't think it will be a good idea in bars. A huge amount of people smoke in France and it is part of the culture. It's routine for a certain section of French society, so I can't see [a ban] happening very soon."


Jean Chaib, head chef and proprietor, Morel restaurant, Clapham, London

"They'll take it harder in France than they will here. The young people might respect it, but not the old. It will be particularly hard in the cafés but it will have to happen one day."





Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....