French flu fears put kissing ritual in danger

Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt is kissed on the cheek by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in July 2008 after her rescue.

A health ministry hotline is advising students and employees to avoid the social ritual out of fear it could spread swine flu. Picture: Getty Images

THE ubiquitous French greeting of a kiss, “la bise”, is in danger thanks to swine flu fears.

Some French schools, companies and a health ministry hotline 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 now in winter, such as the South Pacific island of Nouvelle Caledonie, 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 youngsters 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.

“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.”

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.

A French health ministry website 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 three-foot buffer zone as a minimum, or wearing masks if that’s not possible. It doesn’t specifically mention la bise.


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