Paris: Hookah bars fight smoking ban

In the new nonsmoking France, where café-goers and restaurateurs have made a remarkably quiet transition to the regime of not lighting up indoors, there remains an unexpected pocket of resistance: hookah bars.

The owner of one Paris hookah café says he has been on a hunger strike for two months to protest the ban on indoor smoking, which took effect Jan. 2. Other owners of "shisha bars," as the salons are known here, have simply chosen to break the law by continuing to offer customers tobacco in water pipes.

"We have no choice," said Badri Helou, president of the Hookah Professionals' Union. "If we don't offer what our customers used to come for, our companies will go bankrupt."

Hookah bars, which began springing up in France more than a decade ago, became increasingly popular across Europe, both among immigrants from Islamic countries and among the hip student crowd. Helou's union estimates that France had 800 hookah bars before the smoking ban, half of them in Paris or its suburbs, but that perhaps one-third have closed since the ban took effect.

People come to the hookah bars for a quiet moment after work or to meet friends, sometimes as a prelude to nightclubbing or parties. The atmosphere is relaxed, typically with oriental music in the background. Tea and sweets may be on offer, along with the pipes; the tobacco comes in various flavors, from mango to strawberry.

Unlike cafés and bistros, which still attract customers for drinks and food despite the disappearance of ashtrays, the hookah bars have lost the reason for their existence since the smoking ban took effect, their owners argue.

The Hookah Professionals' Union has been holding talks with the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy in hopes of finding a solution, so far without success. Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot has shown no inclination to negotiate since declaring in December that there would be no exceptions to the smoking ban. "It's a matter of public health," she said.

The members of the union are so incensed by the situation that they are thinking of going to a higher authority.

"This law is contrary to the spirit of free enterprise mentioned in the European Declaration of Human Rights," Helou said. "We're ready to take this case to a European court."

The plight of the hookah bar owners has not impressed the police, who conduct sporadic raids on the establishments. After a six-week grace period, they began imposing fines of €135, or about $215, on owners who allow smoking on their premises, said Lino Cermaria, a spokesman for the Paris police.

Some hookah bar owners have reacted to the ban by transforming their lounges, as the law permits, to include closed, ventilated smoking rooms. By law, these may take up no more than 20 percent of the space of the establishment, and a maximum of 35 square meters, or 380 square feet.

At Le Café Égyptien, on a quiet street in the Latin Quarter, kilim rugs adorn the walls and drinks and pastries are served at small traditional tables. But despite lively Oriental music at the café - the first hookah bar to open in Paris, in 1996 - the atmosphere is no longer festive. The hookahs still stand grouped in the main room, but customers who want to smoke one must now retreat into two special rooms reserved for water pipe users.

The owner of the café, Nasser Abaza, says his business has dropped 60 percent since the smoking ban took effect. He has cut his staff to two employees from five and raised prices, in part to offset the €10,000 he spent fixing up the two smoking rooms. The price of smoking a pipe has jumped 33 percent, to €8 from €6, he said.

A few streets away, facing the city's botanical gardens, the outdoor tea salon at the Great Mosque of Paris will offer hookahs outside when sunny days permit. But the mosque did not make the changes required to allow smoking indoors. In contrast, Le Café Égyptien has no outdoor space and "80 percent of the surface is useless," Abaza complained.

Oliver Lisandro, 20, a British student who frequents Le Café Égyptien, shares this assessment. "The only time that I've seen people having mint tea outside these closed rooms is because they were waiting to smoke and the shisha rooms were too crowded," he said.

For Abdelkader El Ahmer, who says he started a hunger strike Feb. 16 to protest the ban, "the only one who can solve the situation is Sarko," he said, using a common nickname for the French president. El Ahmer, owner of the unprepossessing Houara Lounge in southern Paris, has made some waves during his fast, attracting the attention of the French media and Pierre Castagnou, the mayor of the district.

Helou insists that El Ahmer's - and the union's - cause is just. Asked about Sarkozy, he sneered: "He was elected with the slogan, 'Work more to earn more.' We're willing to, but we can't."

To press its case, the union has taken an action that could indicate the long odds in its quest to become an exception to the law. It has hired Jacques Vergès, a lawyer who was recently the subject of a film, "L'Avocat," and who is known for defending clients including the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan.

Vergès, a notorious figure in France, says he is dedicated to the principle of the universal right to a fair trial.

Source: IHT (English)

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