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: swine flu.
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, 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 swine flu 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.