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photo: sunday driver dimitri
Sunday driver racing through the Place Denfert-Rochereau.

The Revolt of the 'Tabacs'

by Ric Erickson

Paris:- Monday, 24. November 2003:- After getting a bit pinwheel-eyed staring at my computer monitor, I suggested to Jerry that we go to Chinatown for a bit of air and to case the supermarkets there. There was Chinatown weather for it too - it was gray and cool. We went down to Alésia and took the bus 62 to cross to the 13th arrondissement.

Right here I'd like to mention that this line has a nice bus. It's route would be a handy one for cutting around south Paris where the Métro lines reach out from the centre like splayed fingers, but it mostly runs along two-lane streets and gets hung up by even a slight amount of traffic.

No matter how many travellers get off at each stop, more get on. If you think there may be a lot of people in China, just try Paris' line 62 bus. But once at the top of Chinatown, then the streets have wide sidewalks without too many people on them if it isn't Chinese New Year.

Except for the shops and their signs, Chinatown doesn't look much like Chinatown. It looks like a lot of very tall public housing buildings with a lot of Chinese shops on the sidewalk level, with a few boulangeries scattered between them.

As kind of a warm-up, we cruised the 'Paris Shop.' This might have been number one, because we didn't tryphoto: tang gourmet shop the other one. It contained all sorts of rare stuff that one seldom sees in a Monoprix. It was hard not to buy some of it. Upstairs, we checked out the chopsticks - seven varieties! - then got down to the Avenue d'Ivry again by way of a maze of a mall.

Tang Frères gourment take-away kiosk - for lazy cooks.

Tang Frères looks at first like it's in an alley. It is beyond an alley- like entry to a courtyard which contains 'Tang Gourmet,' the entry to a garage, a warehouse, and the Tang Frères supermarket. I forget the numbers, but the supermarket might have been 'number five.' There was another Tang Frères beside the 'Paris Shop' too.

Within 20 minutes we had inadvertently picked up some sesame oil, chili oil, soy sauce, super hot sauce - made in California, black bean sauce, red pepper paste, fish sauce, shrimp crackers, basmati rice, sesame seeds, rice paper for spring rolls, Chinese noodles and red peppers. For something fresh we latched onto some kumquats and a package full of spiky rambutams.

Jerry's plastic card took care of it all as smoothly as if we were shopping in Bangkok. I wondered if we can get a refund on the rambutams if they don't work out. I wonder if they will age well if not.

Then, lugging all this stuff, we toured the architectural delight that forms the centre of the Olympiades complex, and eventually emptied ourselves onto the Rue de Tolbiac which looks somewhat like the rest of Paris.

An empty restaurant on a corner, tidier than an average Joe's Shanghai, served us soups in a jiffy. I had wontons bigger than my mouth and Jerry had something like some kind of meatballs, which really didn't need a lot of extra hot sauce, unless you have a spare handkerchief for eye-wipes.

We decided to skip the bus 62, as nice as it is, and take the Métro back to the 14th. All other riders, if they weren't too frazzled, admired our yellow Tang Frères plastic bags. At Denfert, the big escalator wasn't in operation. Climbing a mountain of stairs is a perfect way of working off a couple of litres of wontons.

Now we have all this exotic stuff, all we need is something solid to go with it. I have already tried a fraction of a milligram of hot sauce on some leftover chicken, and now there's no more leftover chicken left.

The Revolt of the 'Tabacs'

Shops that sell tobacco products in France are called 'Tabacs.' Some are stand-alone, but many are in cafés. They have a monopoly and if anybody else sells cigarettes they are usually other cafés that get their cigarettes from tabacs to sell to absent-minded drinkers, or they are in the black- market kind of business.

The people who work in tabacs call themselves 'buralistes.' Yesterday the government confirmedphoto: tabacs demonstration that it will impose another 20 percent price hike on cigarettes at the beginning of the year. This follows a 20 percent hike late in October, which was applied to cigars and rolling tobacco a couple of weeks afterwards.

The guys who sell smokes making smoke in Paris today.

There are 32,500 'buralistes' in France. Many of them who have outlets near France's frontiers are suffering because tobacco products are cheaper in neighboring countries - except in Britain, but there is a little channel there that prevents smoke addicts from driving across to buy cigarettes that are a tad less expensive in France.

Even if you aren't a cigarette addict, tabacs and 'buralistes' are important because they also peddle postage stamps, tax stamps, Bic pens, Swiss Army knives, phone cards and other small but useful items such as newspapers and magazines. Quite a number of tabacs also sell Loto tickets, and a minority also act as PMUs, for off-track betting.

In general, 58 percent of a 'buraliste's' income is from cigarettes. Their share is eight percent of the price of a packet, while the government's slice is 80 percent. Three thousand tabacs have disappeared in the last ten years, and 450 have closed their doors this year, with another 50 expected to shut by year's end.

Today, the 'buralistes' marched in protest from Denfert to the Ecole Militaire in Paris. The government has already made a concession on the future price increase. It is to 'freeze' to price for the coming four years - after next January's increase.

But this won't help the retailers close to the frontiers with countries with lower prices. There are also rumors that the Mafia is getting interested in the business, as well as whispers that some 'buralistes' will begin stocking up on the other side of the borders.

For one-stop low-grade sin, you can't beat a good café-tabac-Loto- restaurant-newsstand. In the heartland of France, sometimes these establishments are the only ones. If the boulangerie and the tabac go bust, then there is desert.

Tony Blair Speaks

Tonight's TV-news had a surprise bonus, and this was Britain's Prime Minister speaking in French to France-2's Olivier Mazerolle. Mr. Blair, who is a regular visitor to his holiday home in the south of France, explained his government's policy of marching hand-in-hand with the United States' expedition in Iraq.

Mr. Blair speaks French quite well but it seemed as if his words were not quite in sync with his lips. He also looked a bit worn out, perhaps from listening to France's Président, Jacques Chirac, speaking English all day.

Actually, the very fact that Mr. Blair spoke in French was a stunning departure from normal diplomatic custom. Itphoto: chinatown spices is well-known that Président Chirac is proud of the English he learned while being a busboy at Harvard during his student days, but nobody in France is ever supposed hear him speaking English. It is just, sniff, 'not done.'

The swag picked up in Chinatown. All of it too hot to touch!

It seemed clear, during tonight's interview, that Mr. Blair is not at all content with the way things are going in Iraq. "We are trying to bring democracy and prosperity to the Iraqis," he insisted.

Mr. Blair also mentioned that the 100th anniversary of the 'Entente Cordiale' will be next year. Olivier Mazerolle seemed to think that this is a significant anniversary worth celebrating too. The 'Entente Cordiale' was a loose form of friendship between Britain and France - a sort of 'first' for Britain - but without specific commitments, other than some colonial trade-offs.

However, it set the stage for the eventual major alliances of WWI - or it effectively triggered the fears which caused the alliances - and everybody began building as many battleships as they could afford.

Online Weather Warnings

We have oozed into a week of crummy November. There will be dreary rains. The alert service of France-Météo's is very short-term. Its level '3' and '4' warnings are changed to colors for TV presentation, with orange indicating 'beware,' but level 4's red is seldom shown in advance because level 4 never happens.

Mainly these warnings will about areas beyond the area of the Ile-de- France. If you are curious or need to know more about France's late fall weather, give the Météo France Web site a hit, for its short-range forecasts.
signature, regards, ric

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