French cafés reopen: ‘We are alive again’

With a clink of coffee cups and a sigh of relief, the French returned on Tuesday to cafés and restaurants that had been closed for 11 weeks of coronavirus lockdown during one of the warmest springs on record.

“We are alive again,” exclaimed Thierry Fermond, one of the managers at the famous Café de Flore, as well-heeled customers relished their coffee and croissants at carefully spaced tables on the pavement of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Such institutions, from the smartest Parisian brasseries to the humblest corner bars in the provinces, are the social lifeblood of the nation, and their success or failure after the pandemic will help decide the country’s economic fate in the coming months and years. 

With the hospitality sector providing jobs for 2m people, a tenth of the private sector workforce, it was no surprise that finance minister Bruno Le Maire had himself filmed having coffee and conversation on Tuesday morning in the Place de la Bastille at the Café des Phares, a “café-philo” that hosts philosophical discussions. 

Moments earlier, he had predicted in a radio interview that the French economy would probably shrink 11 per cent this year as a result of the “extremely violent shock” of the pandemic. “The worst [for the economy] lies ahead of us,” he told RTL radio. “We will pay for this in the form of growth.”

French economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire meets restaurant and café owners at the Café des Phares

French economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire meets restaurant and café owners at the Café des Phares © Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Nearly 29,000 people have died from Covid-19 in France since March 1, but the daily numbers of infections and deaths have slowed markedly in recent weeks.

A return to normality for cafés and restaurants, however, is likely to be long and slow. For a start, there are none of the international tourists who would normally be flocking to Paris — one of the world’s top three most visited cities along with Bangkok and London — at this time of year.

Restaurants and cafés also have to limit the number of customers by imposing “social distancing” rules — for the time being, no standing at the bar will be allowed — and enforcing strict hygiene regulations, including the wearing of masks for waiters. 

In the Paris region, furthermore, continued circulation of Covid-19 means that customers can be served only on outdoor terraces until June 22. 
“It’s a start,” said Laurent Lutse, responsible for cafés, brasseries and nightclubs at UMIH, the hotel industry’s association. “But there’s a danger that there will be lots of bankruptcies after the summer.” The crisis was proving particularly hard for venues that rely on foreign visitors, he said. 

In the shadow of Sacré Coeur cathedral in northern Paris, the tourist heart of Montmartre is still very quiet. The cafés and restaurants around Place des Tertre opened today but were practically deserted at noon as they do not usually cater to locals.

“We have 40 places available on the terrace and everything is empty, even a blind person could see that we have a problem,” said Mélanie Carette, a waitress at the Sabot Rouge.

“It’s not easy,” said Christophe, who has run a corner café called Le Comptoir des Saints-Pères in the 6th arrondissement through the past two years of anti-government gilets jaunes demonstrations, public sector strikes and now the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m doing it to please my customers. I’m not going to make any money.” 

During the lockdown, the salaries of his eight employees have been paid through the government’s “partial unemployment” scheme, but he cannot bring them all back to work until he can restart the business in earnest. 

A waiter wearing a protective face mask carries a tray of drinks

A waiter wearing a protective face mask carries a tray of drinks © Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg

There is room for just six tables on the narrow strip of pavement in front of his café, although he hopes to borrow some space from the hotel that remains closed next door. Unfortunately, that space is not protected from the weather, which is forecast to change on Wednesday after weeks of bright sunshine when Parisians were largely confined to their homes. “Today is fine,” he said. “But what happens when it rains tomorrow?” 

To cap it all, thieves broke into the bar at the weekend and wrecked the empty cash register in their search for money. “They’re nuts,” Christophe said. “I’ve been closed for two and a half months.” 

Customers across France were nevertheless delighted at the return of their morning refreshments, office lunches and evening beers or apéros

Norbert Darmon, a dentist whose office is in the 18th arrondissement, said he was looking forward to having a celebratory drink with his staff after work. “It has been a stressful time for us all so it will be nice to spend a moment together,” he said as he entered his building on rue Marcadet.

He planned to take them to a local bistro called Le Sarment de Montmartre, which had opened with tables spaced a metre apart. “We will have to be careful and wear masks since we are exposed to many people during the day,” said Mr Darmon.

Christophe’s first customers at his café on the other side of the Seine were a pair of stonemasons and a garbage collector, all fed up with weeks of restrictions and takeaway coffees. “I want it in a proper cup,” said the garbage man in the morning sunshine.