It was the epitome of cool. Before it became politically incorrect, smoking cigarettes was sexy and rebellious. It added a touch of danger and glamour and a sense of freedom to everyday life.
Cigarette smoking became widespread by the late 19th century and was associated with modernity. At the time it was confined to a male world, while women smokers were associated with prostitution and an activity unfit for the ladies.
It all changed at the beginning of the 20th century when chic-looking smoking women started appearing in paintings and photographs and movies. While a cigarette casually tucked between the lips represented the male rebel, female smokers were associated with sensuality and seduction and sex.
Think of French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. If there’s ever a movie after which you just had to smoke, it’s that one. Or American film noir with badass femme-fatales, criminals, and lots of smoking.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay
As health hazards of smoking became more widely known and the anti-smoking movement started gaining greater influence, smoking in movies – that most widespread part of world pop culture – and then in real life gradually disappeared or was associated with unglamorous, dirty, unhealthy individuals reeking of cigarette smoke and lacking motivation and drive.
But back in the days, everybody smoked – from literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes to musicians from Johan Sebastian Bach to Louis Armstrong, and no one did it better than the French. Why? Because before it was banished and banned for glamorizing unhealthy habit and being “too stylish and cool”, the image of two cigarettes burning in the ashtray symbolized lovers and sex. And in France, the country of love, all lovers smoke.
When we talk about the quintessential French cigarettes we’re talking about Gauloises (Gaul women) and Gitanes (Gypsy women.)
Gauloises was launched in 1910. The cigarettes were short, unfiltered and made with dark tobaccos from Syria and Turkey which produces a strong and distinctive aroma. Filtered Gauloises appeared mid 20th century but the non-filter ones were the cigarettes film stars, intellectuals, artists smoked, as well as common folk who yearned for freedom and independence.
Between the world wars, smoking of Gauloises was considered patriotic in France as the cigarettes were associated with the French infantryman in the trenches of World War II and the resistance fighters during the Vichy regime.
The brand was also linked to great art figures such as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Maurice Ravel but also Jim Morrison and John Lennon.
French author and convict Henri Charriere (Papillon) talked about smoking Gauloises. Gauloises were the brand of choice of the former guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers John Frusciante, English singer-songwriter Nick Drake and many others.
The brand appeared in Roman Polanski’s thriller The Tenant and John le Carre’s book Smiley’s People. Bruce Willis smoked Gauloises in Die Hard movie. Father Lucas from The Exorcist novel by William Peter Blatty smokes them. Winona Ryder’s character Susana in Girl, Interrupted smokes Gauloises and the cigarettes are also featured in the cult French movie Amelie.
Gitanes, also launched in 1910 and also filterless, are a somewhat lesser known brand of cigarettes, but nevertheless popular in pop culture – from Japanese manga Nana where Takumi smokes them, to original Transformers cartoon series and “the world’s number one thief” Lupin the Third.
David Bowie smoked Gitanes in his persona Thin White Duke. Serge Gainsbourg could not be seen without a packet of Gitanes in his hand. Slash, from the Guns N’ Roses, smoked the brand and has a tattoo of the Gitanes gypsy woman dancing logo on his back. John Lennon smoked Gitanes on his last day.
Nowadays, smoking is all but banished from public spaces and pop culture and young people who were the target audience of the anti-tobacco campaigns for decades now turn to e-cigarettes and vaporizing as a “healthier” form of smoking.
And although smoking is a bad habit, people still cling to it and nurture it. In Paris, even in the dead of winter you can see a crowd of smokers outside of every popular café or restaurant smoking the cigarettes. Even more popular than Gitanes or Gauloises or any readymade cigarettes are the cigarettes people roll themselves. For smoking is still cool in France and even cooler is taking the time, even if it is just a few seconds, to roll your own cigarette and smoke it with gusto.
Because that accidental encounter of two people over a match or a lighter, that shared moment of two strangers smoking on the street, that bitter taste of tobacco in one’s mouth so often associated with desire and freedom and danger and rebellion is something e-cigarettes will never be able to evoke.
Seriously, can you imagine Humphrey Bogart throwing vaporizer to Lauren Bacall or Audrey Hepburn with an e-cigarette in front of Tiffany’s or Jean-Paul Belmondo truing to seduce Jean Seberg without a cigarette?