PARIS – It's a 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: H1N1.
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 H1N1 flu deaths. The tally is worse in French southern hemisphere holdings now in winter, like 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 H1N1 emerged.
For kids 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, 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 H1N1 phone hotline, 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 hotline 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.
Some are going even further. City Hall officials in the western town of Coulaines said Mayor Christophe Rouillon issued an ordinance late last month that bans spitting in public — a less common custom in France — as a way to prevent the spread of germs linked to H1N1.
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 H1N1 virus has caused at least 2,837 deaths — including 625 last week alone — since it first appeared this year in Mexico and the United States, the World Health Organization said Friday. More than a quarter-million cases worldwide have been confirmed, it said.
The virus is airborne and is easily transmitted when people cough or sneeze. Most cases are mild and don't require treatment to get better.
Outside Paul Baudry elementary school near Paris' Champs-Elysees, some parents expressed concern about flu — though school officials said they don't want to call for a bise ban just yet.
"I've told him to keep a safe distance from other students, though I'm not sure he obeys me," said Marina Ristic, 30, as she pecked the cheek of her 7-year-old son Andrea, then squirted his hands with anti-bacterial gel as she picked him up after school. "I'm a bit worried — that's why I carry this stuff."
Magali Pouget, another parent outside the school, said her employer — the big Paris department store chain Printemps — has instructed its staffers to avoid shaking hands or exchanging bises.
"I'm cautious, but so much has been made of swine flu in the media that we're pretty well aware of what to do," she said. "It's probably just as well that we do too much than too little."