Threat of fines fails to clear the air in cafe society: Adam Sage finds France's controversial ban on lighting up in public has done little so far to change the clouded atmosphere in Paris bars

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AT THE Bar L'Europe in south Paris, Frederic gazed up through a cloud of smoke and took a sharp drag on his cigarette. With his gentle, mocking smile and kind watery eyes, he certainly did not look like a criminal.

Yet that, according to the French state, is what he is. For the past year, it has been forbidden to smoke in public, with the threat of fines hanging over those who fall foul of the law.

Bars, restaurants and workplaces are among establishments which are meant to provide separate rooms for smokers and install equipment to ensure air purity.

But law and reality are not always the same, as Freederic pointed out. 'I've been smoking for 65 years, wherever I want, and no one's going to stop me.'

Pierre, the patron of the Bar L'Europe, was equally vehement. 'If I stop them smoking, they'll go somewhere else,' he said, pointing to his clientele with a sweeping gesture. They were all male, all aged over 50 and all smoking.

Nevertheless, at a neighbouring bar, the owner claimed that he applied the law carefully. 'If anyone doesn't want to smoke, we stick them in the corner,' he said, looking towards the dingiest part of his establishment.

This is not exactly what the former health minister, Claude Evin, had in mind when he introduced the law last November. But opinion in France is sharply divided over the law's worth. In 11 months, just one person is thought to have been prosecuted - an author fined pounds 15 with pounds 20 costs for lighting a cigarette on the Metro in June. Jean-Paul Truchot, of the National Tobacco Information Centre, sponsored by the tobacco industry, says only about 1 per cent of bars and cafes apply the law. 'No other country has stopped people from smoking,' he said. 'Instead of educating people, we tried to use the big stick - and it failed.'

Professor Albert Hirsch, a chest specialist at the Saint Louis Hospital in Paris, takes a different view. While conceding that the application of the law is scarcely rigorous, he maintains that about 80 per cent of companies have created zones for smokers. 'The law is being progressively introduced to avoid too much conflict,' he said. 'It doesn't matter all that much that people are not prosecuted for breaking the law.'

Mr Hirsch added: 'In France, we have a tradition of drawing up superb laws and then not applying them. In the UK, with your traditions, I don't think that could work. However, it is paradoxical that the UK, which is where the dangers of smoking were brought to light, is so far behind the times in this respect.'