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France fumes over Gauloises move

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Singer and film director Serge Gainsbourg smokes a Gauloise cigarette.

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LILLE, France -- France said goodbye to one of its national symbols Wednesday as the last packet of Gauloises cigarettes left a factory in the city of Lille, bringing to an end nearly a century of smoking history.

The legendary brand -- staple of French artists and intellectuals, not to mention millions of soldiers in two world wars -- has fallen foul of changing tastes, and the Franco-Spanish company Altadis is to concentrate production in Alicante, Spain.

The closure of the Lille site, which comes at the cost of more than 400 jobs, also brings to an end domestic production of the sister-brand Gitanes and means that France no longer makes the heavy-duty "dark" cigarettes favored by generations of smokers.

They will still be sold in France, but will have to be imported.

Altadis -- which was formed in 1999 after the merger of the French Seita and Tabacalera of Spain -- also manufactures lighter "blonde" versions of Gauloises and Gitanes, production of which will remain in France.

"France and Spain are the two main markets for 'dark' tobacco. Both are declining, but France much faster than Spain. Last year consumption here fell by 28 percent," Paris-based Altadis spokeswoman Aneta Lazarevic told AFP news agency.

"Restructuring was inevitable, and we decided to focus production in Spain,"

With their unmistakable winged helmet trademark, Gauloises were launched in 1910 in a climate of patriotic fervor ahead of World War I.

The brand had originally been called "Hongroises" -- Hungarians -- but the state tobacco company preferred a name that evoked France's original warlike inhabitants.

Made from tobacco grown in France, Turkey and Syria, Gauloises acquired a filter tip in the 1950s but the true aficionados -- including celebrities such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and singer Serge Gainsbourg -- continued to prefer the raw version.

First appearing in shops in 1927, Gitanes followed the success of their elder partner. Like the Gauloises helmet, their gypsy dancer design became an advertising classic which instantly conjured a nostalgic image of France.

However, both brands suffered badly in recent years from price hikes, an overall decline in cigarette consumption, as well as the growing preference for the sweeter Virginia and Burley tobaccos grown in the U.S., Brazil and other countries.

In 2004, of 55 billion cigarettes sold in France, only 6.2 billion were "dark." Gauloises had a 68 percent share of the market, and Gitanes 30.7 percent.

  • Altadis reported a 3 percent increase in first-half net profit on Wednesday as pressures from weak cigarette operations in Spain were offset by the consolidation of new assets, The Associated Press reported. The company said net profit rose to euro255.3 million (U.S.$311.5 million) in the first half from euro248.2 million (U.S.$302.8 million) a year earlier.
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