France is, not without cause, often seen as a bastion of liberty, and political upheaval. The home of revolution, of civil disobedience and of resistance, its people are politically active, and this year, of course, is an election year. But, though you’d scarcely believe it possible, such is the all-consuming nature of French politics, election fever isn’t the only malady sweeping over France these days.
The fervour surrounding the race for the Elysees Palace has reached dizzying levels, as frontrunner Emmanuel Macron sees his lead slowly ebbing away towards Jean-Luc Melenchon, while each strives to meet Marine Le Pen in the contest’s final round.
But away from this political war, another conflict is silently beginning, barely visible to the untrained eye.
The skirmishes have already spilled onto the streets. Earlier this year, Macron was asked, in order to reduce smoking, how much he believed packets of cigarettes ought to cost to deter customers. ‘€10’ he replied, was ‘an adequate price.’ This was in direct contradiction to the words of the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed ‘If we accept the neutral cigarette packet, in six months you will be offered a neutral bottle of wine. It will be the end of our land.’
That end Sarkozy predicted has traditional, conservative France nervous, and impoverished, working France angry. Though the headlines are grabbed by migration, populism and the loss ‘La France Profonde’, the battle over smoking – which has begun to drag in other industries over the risks posed by legislation on packaging – is a poignant symbol of the imposition of the disengaged, out-of-touch state on the affairs of ordinary businesses and ordinary citizens.
Bill Wirtz writes, in the Foundation for Economic Education, on the damage tobacco legislation has caused ordinary French society, and the havoc caused by illegal tobacco, as the illicit trade has taken hold of the country. Price hikes he claims, have forced many to turn to the black market in order to continue their pastime, causing it to boom. Earlier this year, plain packaging was introduced, a move which, evidence suggests, has next to no impact on reducing smoking but helps the smuggler and counterfeiter (while costing the French taxpayer a saucy centime to buy up deadstock). Yet French authorities simply refuse to take ownership of the situation.
A 2015 KPMG report places France at the top of a list of European countries for consuming illegal cigarettes: an estimated 9 billion a year, 15% of the total market. This represents a staggering proportion of products that are untaxed, and unchecked, posing more danger to consumers than regular cigarettes, which, for many people, are no longer affordable. Equally as important is who the profits go to: Everyone from Hezbollah to the Camorra and the North Korean government have at times been found to profit from this most illicit of trades.
But are any of these facts taken into account? Not a chance. Taxes continue to rise, deepening the issue. Emulating that of a former queen, the attitude among French health fanatics appears to be ‘Let them eat cake.’
And we all remember what happened to that queen…