PARIS (Reuters) - France’s shisha bars, a central feature of immigrant life, have joined forces with traditional French cafes selling tobacco in a fight for survival in the face of a new anti-smoking law.
Unless the government relents, the smoking ban will spell the end of these exotic tea rooms, where customers puff apple or honey-scented tobacco from waterpipes, or shishas.
In the Touareg cafe, lying among hostess bars and theatres near the Pigalle area of northern Paris, a sweet-smelling haze fills the dimly lit space as the soft murmur of conversation blurs into an Arabic pop song playing in the background.
Customers recline on low couches, chatting, sipping sweet mint tea and taking occasional puffs from shishas on the tables in front of them.
“We’re counting the days,” said proprietor Hakim Lechkhab, as the January 1 deadline looms for the ban come into force.
Similar restrictions have been introduced in other countries, including England which imposed a ban earlier this year.
In France, the threat of the ban has forged an alliance between shisha room operators and owners of traditional French “bar tabacs” against the government, which takes 64 percent of the price of a packet of cigarettes in tax.
Shisha bar proprietors joined thousands of cafe owners or “buralistes” in a demonstration against the ban on November 21 and say they are determined to fight it for as long as possible.
Shishas, also known as hookahs or narguiles, were originally brought over by immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
Tea rooms offering them are firmly established in France, accounting for an estimated 800 of about 46,000 cafes, bars and brasseries in the country, according to industry body UMIH.
Once mainly patronized by nostalgic older immigrants, shisha bars are increasingly popular among younger people who want an alternative to bars that serve alcohol.
“There’s an atmosphere that you don’t get at home,” said Adnene Daabak, sharing a pipe with a friend as a video of a football match played in the background.
“It’s a social thing, you come with your friends, it’s clean, there’s no trouble like in some other places. And not everyone can have friends round to their own homes.”
The bars range from chic lounges with thumping disco music in trendy districts such as Bastille, to more casual places like the Touareg, or simple siderooms in modest kebab shops.
Although they are often classified as “salons de the” (tea rooms) and most also serve small snacks, few believe shisha bars could survive by selling tea and cakes alone.
“You can come here without smoking, that’s not really the point,” said Daabak’s friend, Lucas Hurnaum. “Often you have groups of four or five and some of them won’t smoke. But even the ones who don’t smoke wouldn’t come if you couldn’t do it.”
“It’s a bit paradoxical but they wouldn’t just come to drink tea,” he said.
Medical experts say shishas, which use a burning piece of charcoal to toast scented tobacco and then bubble the smoke through water, can have a more concentrated and harmful effect than other forms of smoking.
According to the World Health Organisation, a one-hour session with a waterpipe involves inhaling 100-200 times the volume of smoke from a single cigarette and poses a serious hazard to users and others exposed to the smoke.
Even supporters acknowledge its dangers but say that as long as tobacco remains legal, there is no sense in applying a law aimed at cutting its harmful effects in bars and restaurants to establishments that exist solely for smoking.
“The people who work in shisha bars all come from this (shisha) world,” said Badri Helou, head of the UPN, a newly created association set up to represent an industry it says employs about 4,000 people in France.
“They all know about shisha and if they close shisha bars down, they’ll be on the street,” he said.
A group of members of parliament has proposed an amendment to the law to allow smoking in cafes that sell tobacco, a change that would cover the “bar tabacs” and shisha bars.
With the January 1 deadline fast approaching, the chances of a reprieve appear to be declining.
“The decision has been made. There will be no exception to the total ban on smoking, apart from on terraces,” a Health Ministry spokeswoman said.
Badri Helou evokes the image of the guillotine to convey the depth of his feeling: “You can’t ask us to cut our own heads off,” he said.
“We need an amendment so we can continue to exist. We’re ready to make huge efforts, but like this, it’s just an execution.”
Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Dobbie