South of France sees fortunes dwindle as COVID-19 keeps many wealthy foreign tourists away

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Summer in the south of France. The sun is shining, the cicadas are singing their song of love, men and women lean across the fields to pick fruit and prepare vines, middle-aged cyclists in showy spandex suits covering bumpy bodies work from above down the hills and dream of the Tour de France, the most famous and grueling professional cycling race in the world.But there was no Tour de France in July. It could take place from the end of August.

Instead, on July 20, the day after the tour ended, the French were ordered to wear masks in shops and offices and in any indoor public space. A person stopped by police who does not wear a mask will be fined the equivalent of CAN $ 200.

COVID-19 has relatively lightly touched the southern departments. While Paris remained a government-declared “red” zone until early June, the south was “green” for weeks. This is still the case, despite a slight increase in cases.

There have been just over 30,000 deaths from COVID-19 in France. In the southern Provence Côte d’Azur region, with five million inhabitants, there were just under 1,500 – and only 12 deaths in July.

But the economic impact of the new coronavirus has been devastating.

Chairs are stacked on the terrace of a closed restaurant in Nice, southern France, in March, as the country closed most non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Éric Gaillard / Reuters)

For weeks, the area’s beaches, towns and cafes were eerily quiet. The virus has revealed its vulnerability when tourism dries up.

Last year, the Côte d’Azur region boasted of welcoming 20 million tourists, half of them foreigners. This winter and spring visitors disappeared, hotels were closed, beaches were empty, and the Cannes film festival was canceled with the Monaco Formula 1 race.

This represents a loss of $ 1.95 billion for the region, according to Claire Behar, director of the Côte d’Azur tourism committee.

“We have had difficult times in the past,” said Rudy Salles, the deputy mayor of Nice, including a terrorist attack by a man driving a truck in a crowd on July 14, 2016 that killed 86 people.

“The difference now is the lack of visibility to launch a tourism return plan.

Foreign workers vulnerable to the virus

As officials worry about the loss of tourists and lost income, work continues in the fruit fields. But the virus has also exposed the potentially illegal exploitation of foreign workers – many from South America – brought to France each year to pick fruit and tend wine vines.

Their situation grabbed local headlines when a group of 258 workers living in a camp near the city of Arles tested positive for COVID-19 in June. None died, but all have been quarantined without work for weeks.

Seasonal workers in Saint Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu, near Nantes, on April 14, the 29th day of a lockout in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. A group of 258 foreign workers living in a camp near the city of Arles tested positive for the disease in June. None died, but all have been quarantined without work for weeks. (Sébastien Salom-Gomis / AFP via Getty Images)

Then it turned out that French magistrates were investigating the Spanish company Terra Fecundis, which had hired and brought them to France. He faces charges of fraud and exploitation of a vulnerable workforce.

It’s a big deal. There are several such companies, but Terra Fecundis is the largest. It had an annual turnover of $ 90 million in 2018 and more than 6,700 workers. He transports them – many from Equador, El Salvador and Colombia, but all living in Spain with immigrant status – to France to work for more than 50 farm businesses. Most of the workers do not speak French.

In the village down the road from our house, a bus from another company stops at noon every day, and half a dozen exhausted and sweaty Ecuadorian workers come out. They will be collected later in the rented rooms to work in the afternoon in the fields.

The technical term used by the European Union to designate them is “posted workers”. The EU allows men and women from poorer countries like Bulgaria in Spain to be posted temporarily to richer countries like France, which need cheap labor.

According to a thick file drawn up by the French police and prosecutors in Marseille, Terra Fecundis has systematically abused the system for years. Although it is based in Spain, 99% of its income comes from France.

Because employer contributions for health insurance, pension and unemployment are lower in Spain than in France, he earns money on the public minimum wage (around $ 15 an hour) that he receives in France for each worker. The pay is low, but more than what South Americans would earn in Spain.

Company hiring workers faces charges

Prosecutors allege the company also cheated its workers out of part of their wages, unpaid overtime and falsified worksheets to further deceive them.

Terra Fecundis also shelters its workers. The conditions in some of these camps are said to be atrocious. One was baptized by his inmates “el Carcel – the prison”.

“I was treated like a dog,” an Ecuadorian worker told police. “We had neither blanket nor mattress. We had to sleep on the floor in the dining room. “

Hassan, right, and Mohamed, Moroccan seasonal farm workers, wear protective masks in a greenhouse in Noves, south-eastern France, in June. (Clément Mahoudeau / AFP via Getty Images)

El Carcel was closed by French police at the end of 2017, but abusive conditions continued. One investigator described the workers’ conditions as “equivalent to human trafficking”.

The company has been charged with massive fraud – over $ 150 million over several years – and brutal exploitation of its workforce. The trial was scheduled for May, but COVID-19 has closed the courts. This can take place in the fall.

What is remarkable is that none of the French farms where South Americans work has ever expressed any public concern about their conditions. It is akin to a conspiracy of silence.

Work in the fields therefore continues while awaiting trial.

Full beaches raise concerns over COVID-19

And the beaches of the Mediterranean are filling up. Those who frolic in the waves are almost all French, freed from confinement but reluctant to go abroad.

There are already so many that French authorities, seeing the incidence of COVID-19 begin to slowly increase across the country, are concerned about the lack of physical distancing.

Beaches in the south of France are filling up again, like this one earlier this month, causing health officials to worry about the lack of physical distancing. COVID-19 cases are starting to slowly increase again across the country. (Éric Gaillard / Reuters)

“It’s the unbearable lightness of the crowd,” sniffed an angry doctor anonymously on the coast to Le Monde.

Hotels deplore the fact that the French are much more frugal than foreign visitors. They spend half of what the Germans do and less than a third of the real big spenders – Russians, Americans and people in the Middle East.

None of those big spenders will be seen this summer.

Luxury hotels like the Hotel Belles Rives in Antibes are jostling.

“We have to try to find new ways of doing things,” director Stéphane Vuillaume told public television channel France 3. “We need to start selling take-out meals to customers. ”

And also do the unthinkable: lower room prices.

Tourism represents 13 percent of the region’s economy. Much of that will be lost this year. Cafes will close for good. More than 15% of the country’s cafes will die, according to the French association of cafes and restaurants.

And fear will drive people away.

Luxury hotels line the Cannes seafront on the Côte d’Azur, home to the prestigious film festival. The coronavirus pandemic keeping foreign visitors away, hotels in the south of France are scrambling. (Reuters)

“We get calls all the time with questions like: ‘Can you guarantee that this hotel or campsite is following all virus rules? “” Said Jérôme Arnaud, director of the southern tourist office.

“We tell them our professionals are good, but we can’t guarantee everything. This year is fundamentally impossible. ”

The cicadas are still singing. The humans in the tourism industry are not.

In the south of France, this will be known as the lost year.

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