End of the Road for the Tabac?
Angered at nicotine withdrawal as government moves to lift all restrictions on the free circulation of cigarettes in France, the nation’s tobacconists are puffing up black smoke and stormy warnings about threats to 120,000 jobs.
The Assemblée Nationale December 8 however voted down the proposed dismantling of remaining restrictions on the free movement of tobacco, retaining barriers incorporated in Article 575 G and H of the General Tax Code and paving the way for a confrontation with the European Commission.
While the General Tax Code may sound dull as ditchwater, however the reality is anything but, for French tobacconists are much more than just ciggie vendors.
The Tabac is a national institution, a shrine to French culture encapsulated by French cinema, part of the cafe society, and a social necessity.
For the Tabac — the nationwide 28,000-strong “convenience store” chain as they describe themselves — also sells you your national lottery tickets, strong black coffee and cold beer, newspapers and magazines, fiscal stamps on behalf of inland revenue, and in smaller villages acts as a post office, headquarters of village sports and cultural associations and even as informal banker when no ATMs are to be found.
Indeed anyone planning to set up as a tobacconist first needs clearance from the customs authorities and must then undergo both initial training to enter the craft and continuous ongoing refresher courses at regular intervals.
The buralistes say their livelihoods are now threatened by the planned moves demanded by Brussels and want the government to stand up and fight the EU.
The official national tobacconists organisation La Confédération Nationale des Buralistes de France says 10 million customers a day visit the Tabac which contributes in a unique way ” to the economic and social life of our towns and villages.”
Unsurprising then to find tobacconists out in force Sunday December 5, in national rallies against the free movement of tobacco.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning when the first tobacconist blockade took place in Haute-Garonne with more than a hundred tobacconists slowing traffic, using the escargot bottleneck technique made famous recently by petrol strikers, at Saint-Béat, a few kilometers from the Spanish border. With the help of friendly and cooperative motorists, they showed assembled journalists the volume of tobacco flowing from Spain to France — dozens of cartons carried in each vehicle they stopped. The protesters were also quick to point out that some 1,500 vehicles a day travel the road to Lerida (Spain), offering vast potential for tobacco traffic.
In the Pyrénées-Orientales , 150 tobacconists travelling by bus and cars from the Gard and Herault départements blocked the Boulou toll-plaza on the A9. Joined by 70 other colleagues, they also blocked the road to Perthus in another snail operation.
Meanwhile in Alsace traffic filtering was put in place all afternoon on the Pont de l’Europe which marks the border between Strasbourg and Kehl in Germany. Tobacconists in the protest waved banners warning about “a black tide of smuggling” set to engulf France.
France is required by Brussels to end the ban on purchasing more than five cartons of cigarettes outside the country and the tobacconists says there will be an explosion in cigarette purchasing on the other side of borders where tobacco taxes are lower, such as in Spain and Germany. This they claim threatens their survival. A carton of cigarettes in Spain costs EUR 20.50.
Tobacconists in eastern France also showed their displeasure mounting road blocks and disrupting French Christmas shopping trips to nearby Germany. The tobacconists said shoppers crossing the Strasbourg border could save 10 Euros a carton on cigarettes bought in Germany, and 20 Euros if they went to Luxembourg. “Our village, our neighbourhood needs a tobacconist”, protesters near the bridge over the Rhine chanted.
Norbert Chary, President of the Federation of Alsace-Lorraine tobacconists told the French news agency AFP: “I do not understand the government, allowing massive purchases of tobacco outside France is harmful to their stated health goals and also represents a drain on tax revenues.” His colleague Thierry Lefebvre, head of the Alsace Tobacconists Federation expressed concern about the closure rate among local tabacs which he said was “higher than the national average”. In the Lower Rhine he said the number of outlets had fallen from 480 to 369 and in the Upper Rhine from 340 to 252. He said cross-border tobacco shopping exploded after the sharp increases in cigarette duty in 2003/2004 that pushed up retail prices for a pack of cigarettes by some 40%.
Story: Ken Pottinger