Comfort food: How the French are adapting their famous work lunches to Covid restrictions in winter

·4-min read

If leisurely meals are part of the national identity, they are also an essential element of daily life in France. No rushed sandwiches at one’s desk here. The French cherish their long lunches in eateries or cafeterias – or they did before Covid-19 put an end to that. But new measures are enabling some workers to take a warming midday break.

With restaurants and bars shut in France because of Covid-19 restrictions, people have found new ways to feed themselves. Those who are working from home now cook for themselves instead of eating in company canteens or in restaurants. But what about those who work outside? Now that it’s winter and temperatures have dropped, eating on a park bench doesn’t exactly have the same appeal.

To address the issue, the government recently passed a law allowing municipalities to open their multi-purpose rooms to construction and public utility workers looking for a warm place to eat. The measure applies to “people exposed to difficult working conditions, outdoors, when weather conditions require special protection". Of course, sanitary measures must be respected, and the government has urged localities to stagger meal times and to ventilate the rooms between groups.

Companies must then formally request access for their employees from local mayors specifying the period during which they would like to be able to use the facility and for how many employees.

The law also applies to rest-stop restaurants, to serve truck drivers. Only those who can prove they are professional drivers are allowed to enter. Roadside restaurants already had special dispensations and were allowed to serve meals to drivers during the hours of curfew; now they are allowed to serve meals during the lunch hour as well.

Some areas of France have gone even further. In the Creuse region, for example, restaurants are allowed to serve these workers, if they adhere to specific sanitary protocols. However, the process is fairly arduous. First the restaurant has to sign an agreement with local authorities certifying that they meet all the safety standards, and then they have to sign a contract for collective catering services with individual enterprises. Thus far, about 15 restaurants in the region have completed the process, allowing them to serve lunch Monday through Friday, according to France 3.

'Everyone was smiling, people were joking'

The change was a welcome one for workers who had been grabbing to-go meals and eating them outside or in their cars and trucks. Clement Besson, a logger, was taking advantage of the special provision on Monday, eating lunch at Restaurant Le Victoria in Saint-Vaury. It was a big improvement over eating in his car – even with the heat on.

“During the first lockdown it was spring, so it was fairly warm,” he said. “But the second confinement…. it’s pretty cold.”

And the benefits extend beyond simply having a warm place to sit. With restaurants open, workers can do things as basic as wash their hands, said Besson.

“It’s a good thing for us,” he said of the new scheme.

Muriel Chevillion owns Le Victoria, along with her husband, Philippe. He cooks and she serves. She said they do a fraction of their usual lunch business, but being open allows them to maintain their ties to their clientele. Putting a plate of food in front of someone is not the same as doing takeout or delivery, which they have also been doing, she said.

“I rediscovered the pleasure of serving,” she said after the second day of lunch customers, who sat separated by plexiglass dividers. “Everyone was smiling, people were joking.”

The shape of things to come?

The national initiative revealed an old fault line between workers and businesses. Union officials said they didn’t think the provision should be a temporary one.

“Eating out has always been a concern for employees,” Frédéric Mau, federal secretary of the CGT Construction labour union, said in a statement, specifically pointing to the cost of eating out every day. The union would like to see “living bases” erected on construction sites, going on to say: "The investment in a microwave oven and a fridge cannot constitute a threat to the financial health of the company."

Didier Brosse, president of industry group BTP Loire, sees things differently. "It's a false good idea," he told the regional newspaper Le Progrès. "It is a waste of time and a burden for workers who learned to eat in half an hour." The proposition is not without danger, he said. "What about the maintenance of these rooms and the risks of car accidents on the way there?"

Brosse said there are more pressing issues to address, citing “the drop in productivity due to barrier gestures and the extra cost of supplies to fight against Covid".