It is a little known fact that today there are about 2,500 French farms growing tobacco – making France the 5th largest tobacco producer in Europe.
The history of tobacco growing in France can be traced back to the year 1556 when a monk called André Thevet, from the Angoulême area, brought tobacco seeds to France from Brazil where he had been chaplain of the colonising fleet. Although this was the first time tobacco was cultivated in France it was already popular with French sailors for both chewing and smoking. At first, the French grew to know tobacco as a herbal cure for minor ailments and as a hunger suppressant used by the poor.
Within a few years, tobacco had become popular with French aristocracy especially as Jean Nicot (the French Ambassador to Portugal) began actively promoting the plant’s healing properties – especially for migraine and 35 other ailments– and it was soon widely sold in apothecaries and became known as Nicotiana Tabacum.
By the turn of the century, tobacco was a common sight in French gardens and there was a growing export market for tobacco products made in France. The French also exploited their colonial markets and developed cultivation techniques in them
Following the Customs excise imposed on the import of tobacco from the New World by Cardinal Richelieu in 1636, the first tobacco plantations were planted in Clairac. This area was chosen as because in those days Clairac was one of the main harbours on the River Lot. This was the first time that tobacco had been cultivated commercially in Europe.
Within 50 years many more plantations were established, particularly in the valleys of the Lot-et-Garonne, in Lorraine and Normandy. In 1699 King Louis XIV and his physician, Fagon, began to strongly oppose smoking so snuff-taking became fashionable. Snuff-taking actually originated in France and tobacco was kept in snuff boxes made of papier-maché. Tobacco was still widely used as medicine and for smoking in pipes.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) hand-rolled cigarettes began to circulate in Andalusia, Spain and French soldiers soon developed a great love for this ‘cut’ or ‘minced’ tobacco which was known in Spanish as ‘tobacco picado’ and wrapped in maize husks, whilst the upper classes wrapped the tobacco in paper.
In 1843, the first 20,000 commercially produced cigarettes were manufactured in France by the State-run Manufacture Francaise des Tabacs and sold at a charity bazaar. The same year, the SETTA monopoly was established in France.
During the Crimean War (1853-56) ‘roll your own’ cigarettes became popular with all the participating armies who found them far cheaper than ready-made cigars but in 1881 this all changed with the invention of a cigarette making machine by James Bonsack. The machine could produce 120,000 cigarettes a day..
By 1950, tobacco was being cultivated in 55 French departments and in 1975 the first tobacco co-operative was created in Alsace. In 1995 SETTA was privatised by the turning point for the industry came in 2006 following stiff new legislation by the EU which saw a dramatic cut in tobacco production. Today there are 2,270 French growers who employ nearly 30,000 seasonal workers, producing 17,000 tonnes of tobacco which is exported to 20 countries – mainly in the third world as French tobacco is not of the highest grade.