This winter, the coldest Paris has seen in years, the sidewalks in front of many cafés are full. Under electric heating lamps or cozied up close to the blue flame of propane burners, customers sip their coffees or their Cokes or maybe the rare glass of wine or beer or pastis, and they smoke. For a year now the inside of the café, even a "café-tabac" that has a license to sell cigarettes and cigars, has been off limits to those who want to light up.
The ban was a long time coming, and the French are, as they are wont to do, accommodating modernity with perversity, adapting to the world's changing norms in their own way and their own good time. But there's no question that something of the old Paris—something essential, it seems to me—has gone. A process of sanitation and homogenization, banalization and alienation is well under way, and probably unstoppable.
Tourists, of course, still come expecting the city of the '20s, of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and at first glance it looks much the same. The municipality has been careful to retain elegant facades. But behind them are fewer and fewer actual homes, more and more open-plan offices with suspended ceilings. The life of the city of lights is being hollowed out. And the cafés that once served as lounges for the poor, meeting rooms for businessmen, tabletop ateliers for artists, are losing not only clientele but the conviviality that was their true raison d'être.
The smell was part of that. The American author Thomas Wolfe, in his 1935 novel Of Time and the River, wrote about "the corrupt and sensual, subtle and obscene" odors of the café mingling smoke and alcohol and humanity. But about two decades ago the acrid tar scent of Gitanes and Gauloises already had ceded to the paper and chemical fumes of Marlboros, and now even that is swept away on the icy breezes blowing down the boulevards.
The cafés themselves have been disappearing for decades, their meals highly taxed, their former clients pressed for time. One thinks, as one does when faced with disaster, that it can't happen to Monsieur Coquelle on the Rue Saint-Honoré, but then he loses his lease and the building is now a construction site for a collection of new boutiques. The Saint-Philippe a few blocks from the Champs Elysées has become a dreary little hotel bar. So I have been clinging to Le Central, a café-tabac near my apartment, where the patron, 71-year-old Roger Peresse has always been a fount of opinions about history and politics, and of common sense about his own business.
"Why aren't you out protesting?" I asked him in 2007, when other owners were marching in the streets trying to make a last stand against the smoking ban. "You cannot fight the times," he said. "People are smoking less. They do not want this any more." In 2003, he said, he sold 30,000 units of cigars and cigarettes. In 2007, he sold 14,000. Always proud of his collection of Havanas, they used to account for more than 30 percent of his business, now there were days when he sold only one or two. "A cigar is about pleasure, and pleasure no longer exists," said his wife Madame Peresse, who also runs the establishment, along with their son, in the old French family way. (She never will give me her age or her first name: "Madame will do," she'll say.)
Monsieur Peresse always met the day with good-humored fatalism, accepting not only the decline of smoking, but the decline of drinking—the two staples of his business. When he started out in the 1960s, alcohol was a continuous ritual for many a French working man: coffee and calvados to start the day, maybe "le blanc," a glass of white wine later in the morning, l'apéro, or aperitif, before lunch, red wine with the meal, another calvados, another apéro in the afternoon, more red wine with dinner. He would laugh and shake his head, almost amazed at the memory. And then he would ask who was going to win the American elections. (He liked McCain.)
In recent months, I'd often missed Monsieur Peresse, and when I saw him he described his fight against cancer with a single, simple remark. "From here to here," he told me one day, putting his hands on his solar plexus and just below his belt, "it's Verdun," the devastated battlefield of World War I.
Maybe all those years in the smoke-filled café were part of the reason for his ailment. That's not an unreasonable assumption. But his doctors told him he should keep going back to Le Central, even when he could no longer work. They hoped the conviviality would keep him going where their treatments failed. At considerable expense, the café rearranged its walls to accommodate a little Siberia for smokers outside, and many still huddle there at lunch or in the early evening. But inside, apart from the lunch hour, the place was empty. In December, after the slowest month that Le Central had seen in 20 years of business, Monsieur Peresse died. I cannot help but feel that, too, is somehow a sign of the times.