French restaurateurs drop civil disobedience as government threatens to cut aid

·4-min read

Some French restaurateurs were set to open and serve sit-down meals on Monday to protest ongoing Covid closures. But a government warning that they would lose their right to a solidarity bailout fund has watered down the day of action.

Restaurant owners in France have been unable to serve sit-down meals since 30 October. Despite government bailouts of up to €20,000 per month, some say they’re at breaking point, with little prospect of a return to business as usual anytime soon.

Last week Stephane Turillon, a chef in eastern France, called for restaurants to open for protest meals on Monday, in a day of civil disobedience.

Several chefs and restaurant owners announced they would heed the call. But on Monday morning France's finance minister, Bruno Le Maire announced very dissuasive measures.

"It's extremely hard for restaurants, economically and in terms of morale," he told RTL radio, "but in no way does that justify not respecting the rules."

Le Maire said owners caught serving clients would see their Covid solidarity funds suspended for a month, “and if they do it again, they won’t get any more at all.”

Speaking on BFMTV, Stéphane Manigold, spokesperson for the "Restons ouverts" (Let's stay open) collective, immediately called on restaurateurs "not to commit an offence".

Le Maire acknowledged the restaurants planning to defy Covid restrictions were "an isolated few". But on Saturday, police in Paris said they discovered 24 restaurants operating illicitly on Thursday and Friday, and warned they would step up controls.

Daily Le Parisien reported Monday that one restaurant shut down was serving judges who worked at the nearby appeals court on the Ile de la Cité, just opposite the Paris police headquarters.

A day of action

Following Le Maire's announcement, Turillon said he had no choice but to stay closed after all. The gendarmes arrived and told him he had to evacuate along with 100 or so people who had already gathered at his restaurant.

"I have a family, I can't afford to deprive them of this financial aid," he told France Bleu local radio.

But Gérard Viau, owner of the Arcade restaurant in France's southern Ardèche region, said he was sticking with the day of action.

“Despite the threats from the government and the fact we know the gendarmes will come, at some point they have to stop treating us like idiots,” he told RFI.

“When you look at these big shops people are already on top of one another so I’ve decided to mark a day of action in this way.”

More than money

Restaurants and other businesses that have been forced to close during the health crisis can receive up to €10,000 a month, or compensation equal to 20 percent of their revenues from 2019, capped at €200,000 per month.

But many owners say the money still doesn't make up for lost sales as they have to still have to pay rent.

For Viau, it's not just about money, he says the psychological toll is considerable.

“The situation has been going on like this for nearly a year: we’re not working any more, we’ve got nothing, but above all it’s difficult psychologically,” he said. “We’re forced to take pills to deal with that, we're psychologically weakened. It’s a real body blow: we can’t go out, we can’t do anything anymore.”

Someone has to get fired up

Last week Christophe Wilson, 50, was detained for questioning after he served lunch to around 100 people in his “Poppies” restaurant in Nice on the Mediterranean coast.

People were photographed dropping their masks to enjoy a Provencal stew and other specialities, with some dancing while a band played on the terrace.

“Someone needs to get everyone fired up, and if I have to be the one who takes that risk, so be it,” Wilson said.

Wilson was taken into custody on Thursday but released, and ordered to appear for a formal reprimand, a light punishment that does not go on a person’s police record.

His protest garnered a wave of support on social media, with the hashtag #LiberezChristophe (Free Christophe) trending on Twitter as messages expressed anger over his treatment and the dire financial straits of restaurants.

Trying to avoid 3rd lockdown

Faced with growing concern over the spread of Covid-19 variants that are believed to be more contagious, Dr. Patrice Pelloux is just one of several doctors who maintains France "will have to lock down again" in addition to the nationwide 6pm to 6 am curfew.

But the government appears reluctant to impose another lockdown for the moment, preferring to introduce further restrictions on shops and tighten France's borders.

On Saturday it announced that “non-food shopping centres larger than 20,000 square metres” would have to close from Sunday.

Checks will also be reinforced to ensure that the 10m² per customer rule is respected. Failure to do so will incur fines for a first offence, followed by closure.

According to Le Maire, some 27,000 additional businesses will now be eligible for the solidarity fund.