Resistance in the kitchen: French restaurateurs strap on aprons in defiance of Covid-19 closures

·5-min read

Ever since France’s stringent Covid-19 restrictions were put in place last March, leading to the temporary – and in some cases permanent – closure of the country’s restaurants, a resistance movement has quietly been brewing in French kitchens. On Wednesday, one restaurateur made the fight public by opening his doors for lunch, in open defiance of the ban. Others say they plan to strap their aprons back on, too.

“O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!” The Italian folksong later linked to the World War II anti-fascist partisan movement could be heard Wednesday reverberating off the walls of Poppies, a bistro in the Mediterranean city of Nice. The song, delivered over steaming hot plates of gnocchi or lentils, rang out in protest at the government’s ban on in-house dining and in support of the restaurant’s owner, Christophe Wilson, who moments later would be taken to the local police station.

Images from inside the restaurant show a smiling Wilson carrying plates of food out to customers jam-packed at tables on the covered terrace, many of whom wore neither face masks nor any other type of virus protection.

Wilson’s open act of defiance underscores the growing frustration felt by many French restaurateurs, whose businesses have been among some of the hardest hit as France tries to curb another wave of Covid-19 infections.

After a two-month closure during the country’s first lockdown in the spring, restaurants and bars were once again ordered to close – except for take-away food orders– during a second lockdown that began October 30. When the latest lockdown was lifted in mid-December, non-essential shops and other services were allowed to reopen, but restaurants, bars and cafés have remained closed in order to avoid gatherings in restricted spaces without face masks.

The government has said they will remain shuttered until at least mid-February, but many such businesses have already been forced to permanently shut their doors.

“When I see Carrefour or Prima and all these multinationals where hundreds of people are massed together, I can no longer accept it,” Wilson told reporters during the controversial re-opening of his restaurant, which saw an estimated 100 lunch guests gathering to show their support. “Someone needs to get everyone fired up, and if I have to be the one who takes that risk, so be it,” he said.

Wilson was released on Thursday, Nice-Matin newspaper reported, saying the restaurant owner had not been detained by police for his act of civil disobedience, but because his chef was found to have expired working papers.

Mass disobedience on February 1

But the fire has already started. In early January, Stéphane Turillon, a restaurant owner in the eastern commune of Doubs, declared he would no longer suffer in silence.

“We’re at war. This time I’m going to war and I’ll open my restaurant on February 1, 2021, at noon [and even] if the government doesn’t allow me, I’ll open with force. Please share en masse,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Turillon’s announcement has since grown into a nationwide campaign, with restaurateurs across France vowing to get in on next week's disobedience act en masse.

“More than 200,000 restaurants in France are suffering, and many of them are in agony. Let’s show our solidarity with France’s gastronomic culture,” the campaign’s main Facebook group “My restaurant opens on February 1”, stated. On Thursday, the page had attracted more than 21,300 supporters.

Clandestine openings

The kitchen resistance movement in France has expanded in other ways. French daily newspaper Le Parisien last week published an investigative report on the increasing number of clandestine restaurants operating in the capital.

The journalists (who visited many of the restaurants themselves) recounted how they, at one upscale restaurant, entered the premises via a service door and were then ushered into a fully packed back room where they were seated alongside both police officers and judges.

“We’re fully booked at every lunch service. It’s true that with the [government] assistance and this illegal opening we can survive. If we stopped, it would be the death of us,” the restaurant owner told the paper.

“Eating in a restaurant isn’t any more dangerous than taking the [crowded] metro, or going to a company cafeteria,” he said.

According to Paris police, more than 390 restaurants and bars in the capital and its suburbs have been fined since November for breaching the in-house service ban.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the French underground restaurant movement, however. Although support has poured in on Twitter for Nice restaurateur Wilson under the hashtag #LiberezChristophe (release Christophe), his decision has also triggered criticism.

“Oh please… The guy opens up his restaurant even though it’s prohibited by decree […] He deserves everything he’s getting. Zero pity. Zero tolerance,” Twitter user IanMontpellier wrote.

JogaouTV was more measured in his Twitter critique: “About the Nice restaurant that opened, on the one hand I can understand it because they are suffering. But the fact that there were no anti-Covid precautions in the photos I have seen totally annoys me. There’s not even any distance between the tables… Help.”

Twitter user JoelMistigri35 applauded the fact that Wilson had been apprehended by police, and drew parallels between his act of defiance and Ireland’s sharp rise in Covid-19 cases. “VERY GOOD. The explosion of Covid cases in Ireland is due to their obstinate refusal to close bars and restaurants. It reminds me of the young man who went blind after refusing to wear [protective] tinted glasses when watching a solar eclipse.”

In addition to hefty fines, those who flount France's onsite eating ban could find themselves stripped of any financial assistance they have been receiving during the Covid-19 epidemic (currently set at €10,000 a month or 20% of turnover up to €200,000 a month, based on 2019 revenues), and be forced to close their establishments for an additional two to three months.