- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

PARIS | It’s an ubiquitous French tradition, as familiar as a baguette or an espresso at the neighborhood cafe. Now, “la bise,” the cheek-to-cheek peck that the French use to say hello or goodbye, has come under pressure from a globalized threat: swine flu.

Some French schools, companies and a Health Ministry hot line are telling students and employees to avoid the social ritual, out of fear the pandemic could make it the kiss of death, or at least illness, as winter approaches.

Mainland France has so far only counted three swine flu deaths. The tally is worse in French southern hemisphere holdings that are now in winter, such as the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, with seven deaths and 35,000 cases overall, according to local officials.

Across France, authorities and school officials are taking few chances - while trying to avoid stirring panic when the academic year started last week. In recent months, a few schools in France have been temporarily shut after cases of swine flu emerged.

For children in two schools in the town of Guilvinec, in France’s western Brittany region, the first lesson of the year came from local officials: no more cheek kisses to teachers or other students.



“I asked the children not to kiss anymore,” town mayor Helene Tanguy said by phone. “I felt that the protections sought - to wash hands regularly, not throw used handkerchiefs around, and not cough any old way - had no meaning if we let the kids keep kissing.”

“It seems we were the first town to do so,” she said. It’s just part of an effort to adopt new and more sanitary habits, and there’s no punishment involved for those who do exchange bises, she added.

As a playful alternative, some teachers in the town have set up “bise boxes”: Pupils slip heart-shaped greetings inside before they’re exchanged in class, Ms. Tanguy said.

Many in France see a threat to cherished customs.

“Swine flu has already changed our life,” read the headline of an article in Monday’s Le Parisien about banning the bise.

The national government isn’t calling for a ban. But the Health Ministry, on its swine flu phone hot line, recommends that people avoid “close contact - including shaking hands and giving the bise.”

A ministry Web site on the pandemic recommends avoiding “direct contact” with people, “not kissing, shaking hands or caressing the face” of others - especially sick people.

It advises keeping a 3-foot buffer zone as a minimum, or wearing masks if that’s not possible. It doesn’t specifically mention la bise.

“These are recommendations, not requirements: People are free to do what they like,” said a hot line operator, who said he was not authorized to give his name. The press office for the ministry’s health service did not return calls seeking comment.

The government’s main thrust is to encourage people to wash their hands frequently, and to cough into their sleeves or tissues - not into their hands - when the urge is inescapable.

Other countries have also cracked down on kissing.

In April, the health minister in Lebanon - a former French colony that retains many cultural mores from its past ruler - urged people to avoid a similar cheek-kissing custom there.

The swine flu virus has caused nearly 3,000 deaths and infected at least 250,000 people, the World Health Organization says.

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