For six-and-a-half million children across France, yesterday was the first day back at school after the long, hot summer holiday. But, for 166 of them, la rentrée scolaire was missing one crucial thing: kisses.
Determined to meet the threat of a swine flu pandemic head on, the formidable mayor of Guilvinec in south-western Brittany, Hélène Tanguy, has decreed that there be no kissing on the cheek for any child in the town.
Instead of the traditional Gallic greeting, she has ordered pupils at Guilvinec's two primary schools to adopt what she claims is a gesture beloved of native Americans and raise their hand in recognition of each other. In place of planting "un petit bisou" on each cheek, pupils are expected to keep their distance and say "ugh!" – supposedly a traditional greeting that is considered by many to be racially demeaning.
Angelique Joncour, headmistress of the Jean Lebrun primary school, said the measure was simply "a question of common sense" in the face of an easily contagious virus. She added that, if the pupils felt the need to show affection in the absence of kisses, they could take a paper heart from one of the "bisous boxes" being made available by staff and give it to their friend.
Unfortunately for the teachers of Guilvinec, their idea has been greeted with derision by many observers, who say the ban is pointless. Discussing the bisous ban, and another anti-swine flu measure in the north-western town of Coulaines – where spitting in the street has been outlawed – one anonymous political blogger said the schemes were "perfectly idiotic".
"If kissing and spitting are potentially dangerous ... human beings are going to have to protect themselves from absolutely everything," he wrote. "You would, for example, have to ban making love ... You would have to ban talking to each other, or ask people to do it ... several metres apart."
Undeterred by the criticism, however, Tanguy is enforcing her ban – and leading by example. For the past few days she has been refusing to kiss anyone in the village, preferring instead to greet them with "a friendly gesture".
"To begin with it made everyone laugh. But people quickly understood my attitude, which now seems obvious to them," she said.