February 18, 2016
The 9am bell hasn’t rung yet, but students at the Lycée Voltaire high school, in the French capital’s 11th arrondissement, are already crowding around the big blue door to get out of the cold. A few snowflakes fall on the latecomers. One student finishes his cigarette and puts it out a few feet away from the school entrance, before disappearing inside the doorway. And even though it’s technically illegal for them to do so, other students will wait until they are inside the school grounds to light up.
“We’ve been able to smoke inside for a few weeks now,” explains Anne, 18, who is in her final year of high school and smokes “two to three cigarettes a day.” She says it’s a good thing that students are now being encouraged to smoke in designated areas inside the school grounds. “Before, there were a lot of small groups crowded together [outside], and honestly, it was an easy target for an attack.”
This is one of the weirdest results of the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last November, when terrorists targeted large gatherings to kill as many people as they could. Like many other high schools in and around Paris, the Voltaire has recently relaxed its rules on smoking, and is now allowing students to smoke in a designated area inside the school grounds.
Lucas, also in his final year and also a smoker, nods in agreement with Anne. “It’s safer for us, after the attacks, and also it’s in an open area, so it’s not like it’s polluting the entire school yard,” he says.
This newly introduced measure bends another rule that was introduced by the government in 1991, which bans smoking in public spaces like schools. Days after the November 13 attacks, the French government sent a circular round to school principals, outlining new safety recommendations in the wake of the attacks. As part of the measures, the government authorized principals to set up “designated areas within the schools […] to avoid having students leave the high school between periods.”
Principals asked the authorities whether the new recommendation allowed them to effectively circumvent the 1991 legislation, also known as the Évin law. The country’s Directorate-General for Health said no, and today, the legal implications of lighting up in school remain foggy to say the least.
In a phone interview, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education alluded to “a certain level of fear among parents, students and professors” following the attacks. “As a way to avoid crowds gathering outside of high schools, some principals are temporarily allowing students to smoke within the school grounds, in designated, open-air areas.”
“It’s up to the principal to decide — depending on the specifics of their high school,” she said. The spokeswoman also noted that while the ministry was “tolerating” the new smoking rules, it remained “very committed to the fight against addiction and smoking.”
“All this is highly regulated and will be in place for a limited period only, determined by current events,” she added.
According to Dr. Alain Rigaud, president of the National Association for Alcohol and Addiction Prevention, the relaxed rules could have “devastating consequences” on the health of French high-schoolers.
Smoking is “conquering new ground” despite the 1991 ban, Rigaud said. “Smoking already affects close to a third of French high school students, and if the smokers are invited back into the playground, habits will be picked up,” the doctor said.
“According to the testimonies we have received, there are already 30 or so high schools in the Île de France [the region around Paris] that allow smoking — that’s way too many,” he added.
Rigaud explained that he had shared his concerns with the government on Monday, during a meeting with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. But authorities had failed to make any “concrete promises,” he said.
“Smoking is a major scourge, that kills one out of every two long-term smokers,” the doctor said. “Over the next thirty years, that’s around 125,000 students from France’s current high school population who will die because of smoking. That’s huge compared to terror attacks.”
Security and surveillance around French schools has been beefed up in the wake of the attacks. In a recent issue of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, the Islamic State exhorted sympathizers to kill teachers in France, calling them “corrupters.” Several middle schools and high schools in and around Paris have been evacuated these past weeks after a series of hoax bomb threats.
Philippe Tournier, the principal of the Lycée Victor-Duruy high school in Paris, thinks that allowing smoking within the school grounds is “necessary.”
“You have to remember that every day, throughout the entire Île-de-France, tens of thousands of high school students leave school around 10.30am [to smoke],” he told VICE News. “They are spectacularly easy targets.”
Tournier, who also serves as secretary-general for the country’s school principals union SNPDEN, explained that the union had shared its concerns over student safety with the government in the wake of the attacks.
“We were heard but there is still a coordination issue between the ministries of the interior, education and health,” he said. “There’s a misunderstanding at the state level.” When asked about potential initiatives to help students kick their habit — which organizations like Rigaud’s have requested — Tournier was less than hopeful.
“That would imply huge reforms, because I’m not sure how you can fight smoking when you have one nurse for every 300 students,” he said.
“Furthermore, in the case of some of the high school students, we have no right to stop them, and if they want to smoke outside they’ll do it anyway.”