″Long Live Tobacco!″ -- Vive La France! | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.11.2003
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"Long Live Tobacco!" -- Vive La France!

Thousands of tobacco vendors hit the streets of Paris to protest increases in the price of their mainstay. They say the government is running them to ruin without damning French smokers' tobacco consumption.


"Raffarin killed me": Tobacconists threaten to hinder the prime minister's party in elections in 2004.

"Long Live Tobacco!" demonstrators chanted on Monday, as thousands of tobacco sellers marched through Paris, protesting repeated tax increases on tobacco. Protest organizers said 22,000 people took to the streets, while police put the number at 13,000.

Tobacco sellers have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who plans to raise taxes on tobacco by 20 percent in January. The upcoming hike comes on the heels of two previous tax increases this year, and will bring the cost of cigarettes up to €5.50 ($6.49) per pack, making them more expensive in France than nearly anywhere else in Europe. Only Britain and Norway charge more.

The October hike increased the price of top brands of cigarettes from €3.90 to €4.60. The hikes are meant to encourage the roughly one-third of French adults who smoke to quit and avoid contracting cancer, while also helping to cover a deficit in public healthcare finances.

Threatening livelihoods

But French tobacconists -- 95 percent of whom took part in the Monday demonstration, according to organizers -- complain that the price increases threaten their livelihoods. René Pape, head of the French tobacconists association, says the government should raise prices over three or four years to allow the branch to gradually adapt to the increase.

The irate tobacco sellers allege that the tax hikes don't keep smokers from lighting up either. Instead, they say, the black market flourishes due to the higher cigarette prices, as do tobacco vendors in neighboring countries, where the French shell out less for their smokes. Nicole Paul, a tobacconist from Hayange near the border to Luxembourg, said she had lost half of her clientele since the October price hike. "It's apparent that it's worth going to Luxembourg where (a pack of cigarettes) only costs €2.90," she told the French daily Le Figaro.

The tobacco sellers also say that burglaries are on the increase, as thieves break into their shops and make off with the valuable goods. The October rise in prices was followed by a wave of break-ins.

Government action, or else

Just over a month ago the tobacconists staged a protest, temporarily shutting their shops in response to the most recent tax increase. Then the government wasn't deaf to their anger. It said it would freeze tobacco tax rates until 2008 and subsidize the branch with €130 million.

If the government doesn't stop the increase planned for January though, the tobacconists, who have collected 4.3 million signatures opposing the hikes, threaten to start a movement directed against the governing UMP party in regional elections scheduled for March 2004.

Every year around 66,000 people in France die from tobacco-related diseases. President Jacques Chirac has made the "fight against tobacco" a focal point of his crusade to reduce the number of cancer deaths. According to official statistics, tobacco consumption has dropped by 8 percent this year.

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