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Spin that roulette wheel. Slap down those cards. Pull that one-armed bandit handle. You don’t have to dress up in black tie and tuxedo jacket like James Bond or make your way to the famous casinos in Monte Carlo to hear those familiar croupier calls: faites vos jeux (Place your bets) or rien ne va plus (No more bets). The casino craze has been spreading throughout the country, and today the estimated number of French gamblers hitting the tables numbers in the tens of millions. That’s partly because they can do it in so many places…and so can you.
When you think of French casinos, you automatically think of the Riviera, Nice, Cannes or Monte Carlo. Parisian gamblers who have no casino of their own in town, long have made their way to Enghein-les-Bains not too far north of the French capital or to Deauville on the Normandy seacoast, only a few hours drive from the city. Their counterparts in eastern France often head to the lakeside city of Annecy near the Swiss border or to Megeve in the French alps, while those close to the Spanish frontier go to Biarritz. Gamblers in southwest France’s major city of Bordeaux can go north up the coast to La Rochelle while British tourists can hit the casino in Calais, France’s major English channel port, virtually the minute they disembark from their ferry boat.
But that’s just frosting on the cake. All in all, nearly 200 casinos now operate officially throughout the nation including roughly half a dozen in France’s overseas territories of Guadeloupe, RÃ©union and Martinique. .
The majority are run by big hotel or tourist-industry chains, but many also are family run affairs, sometimes as luxurious as they come and sometimes with sections more in the nature of a local restaurant, bar or cafÃ© with slot machines thrown in.
Put both varieties together however, and you are looking at an annual gross gambling intake of a bit more than 2.5 billion Euros (3.25 billion dollars).
That’s just fine with the French government, which rakes in a tax of 55 percent on all that cash. It’s good news too for the French tourist industry because the casinos draw a booming visitor clientele to the bevy of hotels, restaurants and shops that habitually are attached to or surround them.
In 2003, the last year for which figures are available, the casinos recorded no less than 63.5 million entries, a figure which has mounted steadily since the introduction and legalization of slot machines in France in 1988. It took practically no time at all for the slot machines, easy to access and not nearly as off-putting for the gambler of modest means as the more posh gaming tables, to become the principal money magnet for the casinos. The slots, called variously in French bandits manchots (one-armed bandits) or machines à sous, (small coin machines), now bring in an estimated 92 percent of all French casino revenues despite the fact that French law requires them to pay out winnings of 85 percent of what they take in to players. There are an estimated 16,000 of them across France, usually in or attached to casinos in vacation resorts. There they attract would-be gamblers who may be dressed only in shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes and don’t want to go to the trouble of donning a business suit and bringing along ID. If they seek access to the often more restricted and frequently dress-conscious casino salons where the gaming tables of roulette, poker or black-jack are located, they might face a 10 euro or more entry fee as well.
Areas with slot machines can stay open even when the gaming tables have shut down for the night or a day off. Many of the casinos, gambling tables included, run seven days a week with their doors opening well before noon and not shutting again until between 3 and 5AM. Local entry times, rules and dress codes can be checked easily on the internet by Googling Casinos en France. The net is loaded with sites listing all French casinos, locations, contact numbers and often times the ability to look at the sites and even gamble online. Online betting, as a French magazine put it recently, "is growing like an epidemic of the grippe.”
However, all is not trouble-free in the world of casinos. The proprietors constantly have to be on the alert to thwart attempts to beat the systems. Common tricks range from players who use computer calculations to figure out the most common numbers on a roulette wheel to others who surreptitiously clock the speed of the roulette ball to estimate which number it is most likely to stop on. The easy availability of slot machines has produced a down-side as well due to increasing numbers of French citizens becoming addicted (estimates go up to 28,000 with additions each year) and ultimately so impoverished that they have voluntarily registered with local police offices and asked to be barred from entry to casinos. Other real gambling addicts, whose inability to stay away from the habit can pose real problems for themselves and their friends and families, can be put on the no-access list involuntarily by the government.
Last New Year’s Eve, casino owners narrowly averted an employee strike, which would have shut them down on the most lucrative night of the year. Fueled by the long hours and low wages associated with running gambling tables and machines, the 3,600 employees involved in slot machine service and maintenance, a low-skill occupation that rarely earns them more than the legal minimum wage, were particularly unhappy. Last minute negotiations averted the crisis, but the problems persist and are almost sure to resurface over time. One can only hope that they won’t thwart that night out at a French casino you were hoping to have on your next trip.