Sep 27th, 2021, 11:03 AM

Oral Fixations: Why Are the French Still Smoking?

By Sophia Constantino
Photo by Michael Kilcoyne on Unsplash
Even with extensive research and warnings on the dangers of cigarettes, the French continue lighting up.

Good old Sigmund Freud has once again crawled out of my discarded Psych 101 textbook and found a way to permeate my adult life with his teachings.

I am a nouvelle parisienne, an American expat from New York who moved here  for the wine, cheese, and baguettes to complete my master’s degree. Even before dismounting the plane at Charles de Gaulle, I had preconceived notions of Paris and its effortlessly cool, all-black-clad, francophone inhabitants.

Many of these projections are clichés — the French smell, the French are snooty, they hate Americans — but some have hit the nail square on the head. Most notably: the French are constantly smoking. Even with menacing pictures of cancer patients in hospital beds and bold FUMER TUE warnings on cigarette packs, the French continue smoking.

I do realize that data suggests the number of fumeurs in France has decreased in recent years- down by about 60% since the 1950s- and if anything, France’s smoking habit is on par with the rest of Europe, but as an observer in a new city, the ephemeral linger of cigarettes remains in line with the stereotype.

My question is: pourquoi? A few clues may point to the answer.

Image by Brian Soares on Unsplash


Appetite suppression might be the most commonly entertained possibility. At risk of playing into a stereotype, in general the French are a thin species. I've heard that the best advice for pushing aside an unfinished meal is to stop yourself with a Marlboro or a Vogue, and it is true that I have seen more cigarettes than clean plates while dining out. Better dead than fat is a motto I have heard more than once in my life, referring to the idea that French women in particular would rather risk a cancer diagnosis than gain a few pounds. But in my opinion this is a bit cynical, and it does not take into account that the French love their cheese, their pain au chocolat, their buttery croissants. Portion control is just more present here than in the States. Perhaps our old friend Freud has a more subconscious psychological explanation for the inhalation.

First, a quick personal anecdote: As a youngster, I was a relentless thumb-sucker and an avid nail-biter, to the point where my parents were at a loss of what to do to keep my poor fingers out of my mouth. Desperate and frustrated, mom and dad would paint my nails with a bitter, smelly polish that until recently, I believed could only have come from the black market. As you might have guessed, it did not work. I woodchucked my way right through it.

Adult Pacifiers

Oral fixation is a term some might have heard. According to Freud, it is the overwhelming urge to have something in the mouth, potentially stemming from issues during the first year and a half of life, when a newborn is nursing. Weaning is typically the child's first experience of loss and a critical moment in the development of reliance and dependency. It is the first time a child may realize they do not have complete control over their setting and therefore satisfaction. As Freud guessed, any misstep at this stage may present trouble later in life through a variety of different personality traits and habits. For me, this was the fingers-in-mouth obsession.

Skip forward about 15 years, and I am on a very awkward first date with a lovely, but terribly boring individual. Finding the situation devoid of easy, free-flowing conversation, I felt a pang of social anxiety. I hate small talk more than anything. I was yearning for anything to keep my hands and mouth occupied in the absence of good conversation. I was sipping dangerously fast on my red wine to comfort myself. 

So...where are you from? *Sip*


*Sip* Oh, that's great! One of my best friends is just outside Alpharetta.

Oh, nice.

*Crickets* *Sip, sip, sip*

Within the first five minutes I had finished my (previously very full) glass. Am I an alcoholic? 

Image by Jeff Brown on Unsplash


Skip forward another five years, and I have moved to Paris, cigarette capital of the world. Admittedly, I am easily peer pressured, and when out with some new friends I was offered an after-dinner cigarette. I worked my way through it slowly with minimal coughing. At times I find myself in situations with the same fidgety discomfort as that first date, and now I have another tool in the arsenal. Cigarettes offer the same relief that sipping alcohol can in the absence of stimulation. Everyone on planet Earth can relate to eating when bored, and as much as I refuse to admit that I am now a smoker, I do find myself craving a cigarette from time to time, usually when I have nothing in the house to snack on.

Are the French Suffering From a Deep-Seated Psychological Condition?

In short, no. Extensive psychological journals will tell you that Freud was not wrong- that an oral fixation can quickly divulge from pacifier, to nail biting, to smoking and alcohol addictions- but I am not claiming that every chic Parisian I see walking around with a cigarette is suffering from early developmental complications. There are multiple reasons why a person takes up smoking, and obvious reasons why a person keeps smoking. Through my own experience, though, I think it is worth entertaining a potential link between the large consumption of cigarettes in Europe's chimney, and the need to satisfy an oral demand.

In my time here in Paris, the locals do not strike me as snackers, and perhaps a cigarette is the next best thing to listlessly grazing, cancer warnings aside.