Alex Duval Smith: Our Woman in Paris

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Mornings have taken a turn for the worse for hundreds of Montmartrois – a breed whose habits die hard. Take the morning drill at the Café-Tabac des 2 Moulins on the rue Lepic (above left): a euro slapped on the zinc counter, "un café s'il vous plaît", then a rapid wrist movement and a slurp, to be followed by a short stagger to the tobacco counter and the purchase of a good strong packet of French fags: €3 and 10 cents.

Mornings have taken a turn for the worse for hundreds of Montmartrois – a breed whose habits die hard. Take the morning drill at the Café-Tabac des 2 Moulins on the rue Lepic (above left): a euro slapped on the zinc counter, "un café s'il vous plaît", then a rapid wrist movement and a slurp, to be followed by a short stagger to the tobacco counter and the purchase of a good strong packet of French fags: €3 and 10 cents.

At the 2 Moulins, made famous the world over by the film Amélie (its star, Audrey Tatou, above right), this ritual has been cruelly broken: the tobacco counter has gone. "I don't think my clients will suffer," says Marc, who describes himself as the new owner of Amélie's workplace and "very much aware of my responsibility to preserve the mood of the café".

The previous patron, Claude Labbé, who cashed in and sold up at the height of the Amélie boom in 2001, had promised not to change a thing. And to many, the tabac at the 2 Moulins was as sacred as the apples at Amélie's grocer, Au Marché de la Butte, or the painted horses on the film's merry-go-round. It was, after all, behind this very tabac counter that a wheezing harridan, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, found love between deep breaths into her asthma ventilator. "This is the second tobacconist that we've lost in this area. The year has got off to a bad start," says a passer-by, dumbfounded to find the café closed for renovation, and the tobacco counter gone.

Marc, however, is insistent: "There are plenty of other things for people to come and see here – the toilet door, the clock and the counter, for example. None of these will change. Having a coin tabac in the café, he adds, is nothing but hassle: taxes to be paid, the need for a full-time smokes-seller, a passing trade that doesn't necessarily stop for a quick drink, and the constant threat of robbery.

He doesn't know yet what he will do with the tobacco corner. "We have found some original fixtures in the course of the demolition work. We'll see." But he does seem intent on preserving the café's essentially Fifties features of jigsaw-patterned wall lamps, canary mosaics, and red plastic seating.

Non-smokers may not feel particularly touched by this tragedy in Paris's Montmartre. But they, too, will lose out in a way. Tourist snaps of the café will never again be truly accurate: the Café des 2 Moulins has lost its carrotte (carrot) – the nickname given to the red, illuminated, elongated-diamond signs that, on the outside walls of cafés all over France, have long denoted the presence of a Gitanes and Gauloises outlet.

The French get serious about laughter

Friday mornings in the Bois de Vincennes are a laugh. "Stick your tongue out. Head up. Now throw your arms out in front of you, like a lion showing its claws. Laugh!" That's the advice of Françoise Rousse to a group of individuals gathered in the park who are intent upon escaping the wearing conformism of Parisian life and looking as silly as possible.

Their aim is to notch up as many of the 77 different kinds of laughter identified by an Indian doctor, Madan Kataria, who started the first Laughter Club in Mumbai in 1995. As contagious as a good joke, the idea has spread throughout the world (in fact, a London branch appeared on these pages last year). It is proving especially popular in France, where 18 clubs are giggling away, four of them in Paris.

"Apart from the lion laugh, there's the Norwegian grin and the Eskimo giggle. This involves sticking your front teeth out," says Rousse in all seriousness. "It is a little difficult for the first few sessions because people are very aware of the looks of passers-by. But once people start feeling the benefit, they forget their surroundings and have a good time," she says.

"Our movements are inspired by yoga, and the aim is to relax and relieve daily stress," she says. Clearly keen to appeal to French people's interest in their digestive systems, she adds: "The quick breathing required by laughter massages the stomach and the intestines. It also boosts blood circulation and releases endorphins, which are the source of well-being.

"It is far-fetched to say that laughter has a curative effect but it certainly revitalises the body. There are visible benefits after three or four sessions," she adds.

Initially, she says, some people thought that the Club de Rire was a sect, with the sinister aim, perhaps, of getting people to giggle so hard that they would give away their pin numbers. But with annual membership standing at just €20 (£13), Rousse believes she has convinced the sceptics that her laughter club is just innocent fun.

Keeping it 'dans la famille'

It's very good, in France, to be related to a minister, married to one, or sleeping with one. Take the present government – riddled with nepotism, if the French media is to be believed.

François Mitterrand started it, when President, by appointing his son Jean-Christophe as adviser on African affairs – an inglorious time of bribery and corruption involving oil and tropical hardwood. And then along came Jacques Chirac, elected practically hand-in-hand with his daughter Claude (left) in 1995, who still acts as his director of communications.

Since then, the habit of keeping it in the family has spread, and there certainly seems to be the office space for it. Marie-Caroline Ferry, 27, has a desk not far from hubby Luc at the education ministry. In her first few weeks as his press officer, she has dispatched two of his aides. Cecilia Sarkozy, married to Nicolas, the interior minister, shuns all spouses' events in favour of "real work", and is one of the few wives to refuse payment. "In politics, there's no limit any longer between public and private life," she says.

The ecology minister, Roselyne Bachelot, has employed her son Pierre as parliamentary assistant for 10 years. "When I was 23 and didn't know what to do, she offered me the job," he says. Tokia Saifi, secretary of state for sustainable development, works hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, Amo Ferhati. Only the junior-schools minister, Xavier Darcos, shows some discretion. His wife Laure uses her maiden name on her office door at the ministry.



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