Rear Window: Change comes for the Sun King's cigarettes

The smell of France
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AN ALL-ROUND statesman who had a hand in the navy, the arts, industry and the economy, Jean-Baptiste Colbert is remembered as King Louis XIV's finance minister. And like all good finance ministers, he had the knack of finding money where others could not: one of his tricks was unmasking fake nobles and suing them for extra taxes. But Colbert left a more enduring mark on his country. Most of the institutions that he created 300 years ago have survived to the present day.

Cardinal Richelieu may get the credit for the Academie Francaise, guardian of the language, but it was Colbert who created the Academy of Sciences, the Comedie Francaise theatre and the Louvre museum.

It was also Colbert who in 1647 established a Ferme Royale, or state monopoly, of tobacco production. His concern at the time was to ensure that there would be an uninterrupted supply for His Majesty's soldiers as they fought their interminable wars. Yet, three centuries later, we can say that this act was one of the things that has made France France.

The monopoly is known today as la Societe d'Exploitation des Tabacs et des Alumettes, or the Tobacco and Matches Production Company, or, to the French, Seita. The famous brands of its latter years are Gauloises and Gitanes, manufactured using the immature black tobacco grown mainly in the south-west of France.

From the time when the Morris Minors started rolling off the ferries at Calais and Boulogne in the first wave of the tourist revolution, the pungent smell of that dark tobacco became one of the vital signs of Frenchness, ranking with the croissant, the Citroen and the gendarme's kepi.

Whether the cafe was in deepest Dordogne or chicest Paris, whether you were on the Metro or watching a rural game of boules, the air would be laced with the odour of Gitanes or Gauloises. The distinctive blue packets became as internationally fashionable as some of the more celebrated smokers: Picasso, Sartre, Camus, Piaf, Brel.

Since Colbert's time, like the smells of France, control of tobacco has undergone several changes in status, but nationalised cigarette production survived as a principle.

The monopoly, however, suffered some setbacks; as in 1976 when European Community legislation loosened its grip on all tobacco sales. It acquired its present name in 1980, roughly at the time when France became Marlboro country, and French gentlemen began to prefer blondes - Virginia tobacco as opposed to the dark variety.

The intimate relationship between the government and the cigarette business was had its drawbacks. France's health lobby - perhaps not the most vociferous in Europe - blames the state monopoly for the decidedly lukewarm official commitment to the campaign against smoking.

French anti-smoking propaganda is mainly limited to health warnings on packets. A law on smoking introduced two years ago obliging restaurants to set up separate smoking areas is all but forgotten; even when it was a talking point, it was more as a butt for jokes than as a weapon in the health war. From time to time, there were even rumblings that EC farm subsidies were being used to bolster French tobacco farmers.

Last week, however, a death-knell of sorts sounded for the monopoly when the government set in motion the procedure that will end with privatisation.

Seita will be sold off next year. With 6,000 employees and supplying France with 45 per cent of its cigarettes, the firm is valued at 7bn francs (pounds 833m).

About half of the shares will go to small investors and the rest to institutions, the banks and insurance companies which were themselves privatised in the process of shaking off state control. And after that, there will nothing left of Colbert's Royal Farm.

(Photographs omitted)