PARIS (Reuters) – “Chez Françoise” is a place discreetly located near the French parliament whose guestbook displays the signatures of former leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Options include a “Parliamentarian Menu” – three courses including wild boar pâté with chestnuts, veal and crêpes suzette.
In late September, as a second wave of COVID-19 infection loomed, government science advisers wanted new restrictions on bars, restaurants and cafes.
Fearing that his business would suffer, Pascal Mousset, owner of Chez Françoise and four other restaurants in the French capital, decided to call on a former contact. “Please, do not close Paris”, sent Mousset to Alain Griset, young minister at the Ministry of Finance and the Economy.
Mousset recounted the exchange in an interview with Reuters. Until Griset entered the government in July, the politician was a regular at Chez Françoise. Griset said he had known Mousset for years, but their contacts on COVID-19 were part of a normal exchange of views between government and business officials.
Mousset’s efforts illustrate a wider campaign in France and around the world by business leaders to fight the brakes scientists are looking for to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. In Paris, that seemed to help, at least for a while. Restaurants and cafes remained open for a few more weeks.
It’s a fight that has unfolded in different ways across the world. In France – the country that invented haute cuisine, where many voters consider cafes and bars essential to life – the hospitality industry has taken its cause to the highest political level.
Celebrity chefs have expressed their point of view on chat shows. Restaurant owners protested in the streets. And the campaign, described to Reuters by more than a dozen people involved from all sides, involved numerous closed-door meetings.
The battle has often been one-sided, according to four scientists involved in advising the French government. They said their understanding of how the virus was transmitted sometimes took a back seat to what was politically and socially acceptable.
For Yazdan Yazdanpanah, member of the Scientific Council, an independent advisory body consulted by the government, experience has shown that the scientific community must redouble its efforts to be heard.
“Should we have taken harsher and more coercive measures? ” he said. “Should we have explained things better?” We must learn to make an effort with communication, with education, much more than before. ”
A spokesperson for the health ministry said the government has always put public health interests first. A spokeswoman for the French presidential administration said the consultation with industry groups was conducted transparently.
“At no point did we compromise on public health advice,” she said.
Two months later, restaurateurs are fighting again for relief from a new foreclosure. New infections in France have declined from their peak in early November, but the country averages more than 500 deaths per day, one of the most in the world.
WAY OF LIFE
The French spend more time than those in any other developed country eating or drinking, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. A significant portion of this money is spent in cafes and restaurants. For many workers, lunch with colleagues or clients is the focal point of the day.
“It is a virus that is very damaging to the French way of life – to eat, a glass of wine, a conversation,” said Julien Borowczyk, doctor and deputy who chairs a committee on the management of the epidemic by the government .
In addition, the Paris region has the highest concentration of accommodation and catering jobs in Europe, with just under 400,000 people working in the sector in 2017, according to data from the European Union statistical agency Eurostat.
In August, the French were enjoying their summer. The first lockdown ended in May, cases were down sharply and the country’s roughly 200,000 bars, restaurants and cafes were buzzing.
But already that month, the infections were accelerating. The Scientific Council had warned officials to expect a resurgence of infections.
On September 11, the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study showing that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have said they had dined at a restaurant than others. French scientists said American research confirmed their suspicions: after private homes, hospitality was an alarming vector of infection.
People were not following safety instructions properly, said Didier Lepelletier, co-chair of a COVID-19 working group at the Haut Conseil de la santé publique, the government’s main advisory body, which helped draft the guidelines.
On the day of the publication of the CDC report, President Emmanuel Macron chaired a meeting of his COVID-19 working group. Health Minister Olivier Veran lobbied for restaurants, bars and cafes to be closed in Marseille and Bordeaux, cities where the virus was most endemic, according to two people briefed on the exchanges.
Macron said no, telling Veran to focus on improving testing. He was worried about the economy and whether the French would accept the measures, said a lawmaker affiliated with his supporters in parliament.
Macron’s office declined to comment on the exchanges during the meeting, as did the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health.
On September 22, the Scientific Council issued a note recommending the closure of bars and restaurants if they could not follow more stringent security measures.
The government has ordered the closure of bars and restaurants in the Marseille region; those of Bordeaux remained open.
The hospitality industry believed that Paris could be next.
“We said to ourselves: we must do something,” said Stéphane Manigold, owner of four Parisian restaurants including one whose main course consists of sautéed squid, Iranian lemon black butter, caramelized seeds and marinated squash. earned her a recommendation in Vogue magazine. .
The industry began to take advantage of his influence.
Restaurant dinners and Zoom meetings have been called urgently so that prominent figures can work out a plan of action, said Jacques Bally, former head of the Gault and Millau restaurant guide, who is in contact with many. many people involved.
Lobbying groups have been joined by celebrity chefs including Philippe Etchebest, the French equivalent of television chef Gordon Ramsay, and Alain Ducasse, who runs a three Michelin star restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
Under the banner “We remain open”, the coalition organized street protests in Marseille and Paris.
To help their cause, scientists representing a minority opinion published two open letters claiming that talk of a second wave was overkill.
Behind the scenes, Manigold was sending private messages to Bruno Le Maire, the Minister of Finance and the Economy and an old acquaintance, on WhatsApp.
He told the Mayor that state support for restaurant staff on leave was less generous than the minister believed. The minister asked him to continue sending “relevant information,” Manigold said.
“Everyone goes to a restaurant,” Manigold said. “Doctors and politicians are good living. The mayor’s ministry declined to comment, referring the questions to the health ministry.
Deputy Mayor Griset held 16 meetings about or with representatives of the hospitality industry between July 24 and November 15, according to its official journal. These were more meetings than he held with representatives of any other economic sector during the period.
Griset told Reuters that hospitality was one of the hardest hit areas, so it made sense to hear their point of view. He said public health has never been relegated to economic interests.
Macron was also involved. Meanwhile, he went to have a meal – outside of his official schedule – at a restaurant in Paris’ sixth arrondissement where he used to eat before being elected, according to an industry source. He spoke to the kitchen staff and owners of that restaurant about their concerns, the source said.
The presidential administration declined to comment.
On September 29, three days after the owner of “Chez Françoise” texted Griset, France recorded just over 8,000 new cases of COVID-19, a drop from the start of the month.
Griset’s boss, Le Maire, and Prime Minister Jean Castex responded to requests from associations representing the industry for an urgent meeting. On the agenda: the possible closure of all restaurants, bars and cafes across France, a person told Reuters.
Industry delegates had a proposal. If they promised to stick to stricter guidelines for restaurants, could they stay open? Officials present at the meeting decided to study the proposal further.
The Higher Public Health Council approved it and a week later, when new restrictions were announced, restaurant closures were not one of them.
Asked for comment, the prime minister’s office told Reuters that the government acted on the advice of the High Council, adding that the measures it took had succeeded in containing the second wave, while limiting damage to the ‘economy.
“Managing this crisis requires walking a tightrope between protecting public health and protecting our economy. This is what the government is doing, ”the statement said.
Four weeks after this meeting, on October 27, the number of COVID-19 in France had skyrocketed: 33,417 new cases and 148 new patients in intensive care. A total of 523 deaths have been recorded.
The next day, Macron announced a nationwide lockdown, including the closure of all restaurants and cafes. They will remain closed until Christmas and New Years and will not reopen until January 20 at the earliest.
In the high-stakes competition with the French restaurant and cafe industry, scientists had been at a disadvantage, said Yazdanpanah, a member of the Scientific Council.
“We are not going to protest in the street. ”
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Sara Ledwith)