September 5, 2023 - 10:30am


In a changing world where public health is rightly a priority, it isn’t hard to feel for Parisians of a certain age who are reprimanded for their smoking habits. 

One – let’s call her Élisabeth – is a notorious repeat offender who faces regular fines for puffing in public buildings. Born in the French capital in 1961, she well remembers a time when a packet of Gitanes or Gauloises was the ultimate expression of Gallic chic. 

Whether getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, or indeed doing absolutely anything in between, a smouldering clope was not just permissible, but pretty much compulsory. Everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Brigitte Bardot was a proud chain-smoker, usually picking up the habit in their teenage years when tobacco was associated with sophistication and independence.

Those heady days of freedom are certainly over, and otherwise blameless men and women of a certain age increasingly face censure within President Emmanuel Macron’s nanny state. This is all particularly awkward for nicotine addict Élisabeth, because she is none other than Macron’s current Prime Minister, Élisabeth Borne.

It was in July that the 62-year-old was last caught vaping in the National Assembly — France’s equivalent of the House of Commons — and threatened with a €150 (£128) fine. The Prime Minister has form for doing the same thing in numerous other public buildings, including the Senate.

No matter. Senior French elected officials seldom serve their prison sentences (ask twice-convicted felon Nicolas Sarkozy), let alone pay their fines, and Macron has just put Madame Borne in charge of his latest campaign to — wait for it — clamp down on puffers just like her. 

Ludicrous as it might sound, Borne announced at the weekend that her government would “soon present a new national plan to fight against smoking with, in particular, the prohibition of disposable electronic cigarettes, the famous ‘puffs’ which give bad habits to young people”.

In this sense, Borne is a textbook Macron stooge whose primary task is to enact his plans to curtail liberty, equality and fraternity, and to absorb all the criticism for doing so, while he remains loftily aloof.

French leaders have humiliated their expendable lieutenants like this for centuries, but Macron’s attacks on lifestyle freedoms — whether smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating rich food — are considered particularly un-French. More hypocritical still, Macron himself has openly admitted to being an occasional smoker, saying he has used cigars to destress. 

There is even an official portrait of him holding a vape in his office at the Élysée Palace, although the extent of his use remains underexplored. More likely, though — as with his alleged fondness for French alcohol — it’s all part of the nationalistic bon viveur image he likes to cultivate while actually pursuing a restrained, if not thoroughly puritanical, private life.

Even Macron’s romantic life is atypical by the usual standards of French presidents — he’s been with the same women, his former schoolteacher and now his wife, Brigitte, since he was a teenager. In short, there is none of the philandering, boozing, gorging or puffing that used to define Macron’s country, and make it loved around the world. Now, his PR machine can’t hide the prissiness that is making it drearier by the day. 

Given the première dame‘s previous career, perhaps it’s about time she taught him a thing or two about how France used to be. 

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.