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French tobacconists block Spanish border

Some 100 French tobacconists Sunday blocked access to the Spanish border in the southwestern frontier village of Perthus to protest a recent price hike on cigarettes and tobacco products.

French tobacconists block Spanish border
Photo: David Masters

The demonstrators set up barricades along a four-kilometre (2.5-mile) route to denounce a 6.5 to 10% increase in prices introduced this month, saying they were being forced out of business.

"A new network created by the state — tobacco mafia," read a sign on roadblock set up by them.

"Smuggling = 15,000 cartons per Sunday and destruction of the economy," said another.

Hordes of French travellers descend on the village every weekend to cross the border and snap up cheap tobacco and alcohol in Spain.

Gerard Vidal, the head of a local tobacconists' body, said the price difference with Spain, where cigarettes sell for as cheap as €4.25 ($5.5) against a minimum of €6.10 in France, was "catastrophic."

The price bump is not only linked to health grounds but also to the new Socialist government's efforts to plug a €37 billion hole in public finances.

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TOBACCO

Why are carrots the protest weapon of choice for angry French tobacconists?

French tobacconists once again protested in Paris on Wednesday against the government's plan to hike the price of a packet of cigarettes to €10. But why do they always dump carrots?

Why are carrots the protest weapon of choice for angry French tobacconists?
Photo: AFP

On Wednesday some 1.2 tonnes of carrots are expected to dropped off outside the Ministry of Health in Paris.

This is not a protest by French farmers blasting the influx of British carrots or even an effort to help staff at the ministry see better in the dark, but a protest by French tobacconists, or cigarette sellers.

These tobacconists, known as buralistes in French, regularly use carrot dumping in their protests, just as they did in September 2015 outside the Ministry of Finance to demonstrate their anger at plain packaging, and again on the streets of northern Paris earlier this year to protest the influx of contraband cigarettes.

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But while we can understand their gripes fairly easily, it's a little harder to comprehend their method of protest. A little history lesson can help explain it.

The more simple explanation is that the “carrot” is a reference to the name of the red diamond shaped sign that hangs outside tobacconist shops in France (see pic). In French these are known as “Carotte de tabac”.

Ever since 1906 stores selling tobacco and cigarettes must display a “carrot” on the street outside.

But the story goes back further than that.

In the sixteenth century, before tobacco was sold in nicely packaged packets of 20 or 10, it used to be sold rolled up in leaves a few centimetres long.

Not only did these rolled up leaves have the shape of a carrot, but smokers or chewers of tobacco at the time had to grate the leaves to get to the tobacco.

And that was enough for carrots to become the symbol of tobacconists.

Wednesday’s protests in Paris however will not just involve vegetables.

Hundreds of buralistes staged a go-slow on the A4 motorway near Paris and were due to head to the péripherique ring road around the city, where their action will no doubt lead to traffic misery.

Their gripe is not only the government’s plan to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to €10 over the coming years, but also the increased competition from the black market.

Tobacconists complain France is being flooded by cigarettes from Spain, where the price of a packet is much cheaper.

Bernard Gasq, the president of Federation of Tobacconists in the Paris region said simply: “The government wants us wiped out.”

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The craziest French protests you'll find hard to believe