updated 10/3/2006 7:17:02 PM ET 2006-10-03T23:17:02

French lawmakers are trying to make France's smoky cafes a thing of the past.

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A parliamentary panel called Tuesday for a government ban on smoking in enclosed public areas within a year — and floated an idea of "hermetically sealed" smoking rooms for those who want to light up.

Although just a recommendation, leaving the government with the final say, a ban would send a shock through France's smoker-friendly culture, where cigarettes have long been identified with cool, and smoky bistros are still redoubts of Paris' intelligentsia.

Even the French presidency's Web site shows a photo of a young President Jacques Chirac in a James Dean-like pose with a cigarette in his mouth.

Health Minister Xavier Bertrand has said smoking-related illness kills 66,000 people every year in France. An estimated 5,000 of those deaths are attributed to secondhand smoke, he said.

"The status quo is not acceptable," said an extract of the parliamentary panel's report, which was to be made public Wednesday.

The government is expected to decide by mid-October on the panel request for a ban in cafes, offices, schools, restaurants, airports and train stations and other enclosed public spaces by next September.

In a symbolic gesture, the president of the French parliament's lower house said its tobacco shop will close Jan. 1. Jean-Louis Debre said the chamber should set an example.

If the ban takes effect, France would become the latest European country to join the anti-smoking bandwagon — Ireland, Spain, Italy and Britain have adopted similar measures.

The French panel advised that the government adopt a ban by decree, because parliament's "heavy load" of business in coming months may make it difficult to legislate. Bertrand has said he backs a decree to avoid any political fallout with elections looming next spring.

The panel also floated the idea of partitioned zones for smokers, described as "hermetically sealed spaces equipped with smoke-extraction systems and strict health rules." But in places like restaurants, table service would not be allowed inside them to protect the health of waiters.

Socialist lawmaker Claude Evin, an anti-smoking crusader who headed the panel, said details of such smoking rooms remained to be worked out — but at first glance they appeared "virtually unfeasible."

Evin and other supporters of a ban fear a decree would be too weak, insisting a parliamentary vote would carry the weight of law — and thus force people to comply.

Many hoteliers, bistros owners and restaurateurs vowed a fight. Opponents want some exceptions — such as exemptions for bars that sell tobacco products.

"We oppose a total ban, and we will remain opposed," said Francis Attrazic, vice president of the French hospitality industry association, UMIH. "Cafes, hotels and restaurants are being scapegoated."

"It will have huge financial consequences," he added.

On the streets of Paris, even some nonsmokers say a ban would go too far.

"Smokers have rights too," said Rhamzi Ayache, a 60-year-old computer technician. "They must find a way to coexist. There can be two kinds of cafes."

Others like Natalie Ody, a nonsmoker whose young son is asthmatic, applauded the proposal, saying a ban would help them breathe easier in Paris restaurants.

"For him, it's good news," said the 41-year-old dental assistant, referring to her son. "If somebody's smoking at the next table, we're smoking too."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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