When did you last smell a pipe? In my boyhood, the tarry reek of ready-rubbed was inescapable. My grandfather's St Bruno fumigated an entire tenement, and no-one complained. We played football in the fug from the old boys' domino club at the back of the park-keeper's hut. When I went to work at The Scotsman
, the newsroom air hung heavy with the determination of older colleagues to shift from cigarettes to pipes in hope of beating the appalling average mortality age for newspapermen (they didn't). Pipe tobacco was like coal smoke, boiled washing, or fry-ups: a smell that was once so ubiquitous that you only notice it now it's almost gone.
As far as my nostrils can tell, pipe-smoking is no more common these days in France than in Scotland. It is, however, essential: or, rather, 'essential'. How do I know this? Because we are in another month-long Covid lockdown, and only 'essential' retail businesses are permitted to open. Such as, evidently, the old-fashioned pipe and cigar shop near our home in Montpellier.
By their deeds shall ye know them, says St Matthew. When it comes to the soul of nations, the commodities that they regard as essential are a better guide. The rules for what may or may not open for business have changed constantly, and quite bewilderingly, across successive phases of Covid restriction. One constant from the outset, though, was that tobacconists were counted as 'essential' and allowed to stay open. This also applies to shops selling those vaping devices whose sickly fumes I would be very happy to see go the way of pipes and coal fires.
France no longer stinks of Gauloises and Disque Bleu, but a lot of people do still smoke. In this city of the young, quite a lot of what they smoke isn't tobacco, but the fag on the lower lip continues to form part of the national self-image, along with the inalienable right to foul the streets with male urine and with miniature dogs that would be good in a baguette. Like the ashtray on the table on the restaurant terrasse, le tabac is enshrined in la patrimoine. It is thus essential.
The latest list of 'essentials' captures rather well that defiant aesthetic that is so endearingly France. Patisseries are there of course, since life is simply unimaginable without fine pastry; likewise confectioners, selling the multi-coloured macarons that the French find strangely indispensable. And chocolatiers: Easter weekend, when the latest lockdown took effect, found the traditional round-the-block queues in place, patiently awaiting the opportunity to spend €49.50 on six tiny dark chocolate eggs in a nest of straw. Florists too are free to continue their vital mission of bringing an orderly hint of nature to the urban apartment. Nor are the hair salons closed this time around: people had more than enough last year of looking like television sociologists.
Government has also thought better of trying to class wine sales as inessential. In the first lockdown, wine shops were closed, prompting an outcry that the modest tradesman was losing out in favour of the rapacious corporatism of the supermarkets. This protest was taken up by the small-scale vineyards, universally (if unreliably) reputed to make wonderfully unique little wines, who sell their output at their own counters or through a few local dealers. So those too are now open.
Much the same argument has raged back and forth over the non-food sales in the supermarkets. In the first lockdown, specialist businesses selling clothing, homeware, stationery or garden supplies wondered volubly why they were being forced to close while the supermarkets, inescapably classed as the 'essential' source of most people's staple provisions, were continuing to sell these products. So, after a while, the supermarkets were required to rope off shelves selling non-food products. It looked just as preposterous as the taped-off morning booze aisles do in Scotland, and was duly abandoned in return for a much more inclusive list of 'essential' retailers. In this latest lockdown, the dispensations are more inclusive yet, but the ropes are back up for items, notably clothing (but not underwear, tights or kids clothes), still on the forbidden list.
Wherever you draw the line, there will be anomalies. Our local IKEA had to close some weeks back, while nearby the discount store B&M continued doing brisk business in its massive stock of things I have no wish ever to own. If your business makes or repairs shoes you may stay open: not so if you merely sell them. Cafes, like restaurants, have been closed since last October, but internet cafes can open provided that they also sell or repair IT devices. Why, restaurateurs reasonably ask, can you munch a hamburger outside a fast-food kiosk, but not proper food on a terrasse? Why can you drink Coca-Cola in the street, but not pastis? This time around, DIY stores, hardware shops and garden centres have been deemed 'essential' and allowed to remain open. Okay, so spring is their busy season: still, it's hard to see much logic in being able to buy a patio set but not a sofa.
I pass the pipe shop on my way to our local street market. By a rationale that passes understanding, people are still allowed to cram into narrow alleys between market stalls, but not to wander round a photography exhibition. It was a national government decision to leave markets open but local mayors can dissent. Here, the strange compromise is to ban non-food stalls, a small minority of most markets. Why a crowded market should be safer because there's a gap where the soap stall usually stands is beyond me. Some traders are showing enterprise by adding a few bunches of asparagus to their range of non-comestibles, and pretending to be a food stall.
There is also virtue-signalling. The green drive to get people out of their cars has scored a decision to classify cycle shops as 'essential'. But since many also deal in the sundry varieties of scooter to which urban France is addicted, the definition extends to other two-wheeled transport. You'll have no problem getting your Harley serviced. And because petrol stations are staying open, so too can the car repair garages so often attached to them: as can businesses that rent (but not sell) cars.
A muted cheer arose from cultural lobbies when, in the second lockdown, bookshops were reclassified as 'essential' and allowed to open. This time, the dispensation extends to record shops (yes, France still has record shops). But the rest of the cultural sector stays shuttered, as it has for the past year. This is a thorn in the side of the authorities. France has a lot of cultural virtue to signal – is there a prouder cultural symbol anywhere than the Louvre? – and culture is also popular. Why should people be allowed into a music store but not a jazz club or an opera house?
Which is the next big battleground. Emmanuel Macron, announcing a new lockdown he had hoped to avoid, took care simultaneously to offer an exasperated populace the carrot of staged re-opening from next month of cultural venues, along with cafés and restaurants… provided they obey the rules and the infection rate comes down. Confronted with a grumbling electorate and a tight re-election campaign ahead, it is vital for him to find the elusive balance between administering effective medicine and sweetening its taste. You might even call it essential.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster