French authorities say dozens of people who blatantly defied pandemic restrictions by turning out for a highly-publicised restaurant opening in Nice will be identified and fined.
The "Poppies" restaurant in the centre of the French Riviera city served lunch to dozens of customers on Wednesday as the owner opened up his establishment -- only to find himself arrested and taken into custody later, but for a different reason.
Christophe Wilson spent the evening in detention, accused by the authorities of employing his cook illegally.
"I have to pay my employees, support my family," he said earlier. Like thousands of others, his restaurant had been closed since October 30 as part of government health measures to combat COVID-19, which official figures say have killed 74,456 in France as of Wednesday.
The opening came amid a fanfare of publicity, applause from customers and some approval on social media -- but it attracted a torrent of criticism for endangering public health.
France has been anticipating a new lockdown due to the seriousness of the pandemic. The health minister said on Thursday there were now an estimated 2,000 cases a day of new coronavirus variants in the country, a four-fold increase on earlier this month.
'I assume the risks'
"There must be someone who gives the momentum to everyone, and if it must be me who has to take the risks, I assume them", said Wilson on the covered terrace of his restaurant.
Around 100 people turned out for the lunch, many of them seated without masks under the terrace awnings.
The police, who were close by along with many from the media, did not intervene. However, the préfecture of the Alpes-Maritimes department said later on Twitter that people identified at the gathering had been or would be fined.
"Respect for the rules by all, for the health of all," it added.
The restaurant's cook, an "undocumented foreigner", was placed in a detention centre, the préfecture said. But it did not elaborate on what charges, if any, the restaurant owner would face relating to the opening.
"I hope that everyone will follow suit and that the entire population of our country will resume the course of their normal life", pleaded the 50-year-old, who did not wear a mask as he served customers.
"When I see Carrefour or Prima or all these multinationals where hundreds of people congregate, I can no longer accept that. I have to pay my employees, support my family and receive my customers."
Christophe Wilson's stance -- and the reaction to it -- illustrate the tensions and frustrations being felt amid the pandemic restrictions in France.
"We came to support Christophe in his act of enjoyable disobedience," Franck Lacaille, 35, one of the customers and himself a restaurant chef, said after the lunch. "Our stance isn't violent, it's just to rediscover our fraternity. It enabled us to talk and discuss, like in the life we had before."
Customers (many of whom, an AFP journalist noted, are figures in the local "yellow vests" movement), had the choice between a typical Nice dish, daube-gnocchi, or a vegetarian dish made from coral lentils.
Reaction on social media was predictably divided. "Bravo to him, it's time for people to get back the freedom to go to a restaurant or any other place, or not," tweeted one user. "Let's learn to live with the presence of the virus, without giving up our freedoms and without plunging thousands of families into financial insecurity."
But condemnation was equally forceful. "Ladies and gentlemen, the new COVID-19 variant for Nice. Are they irresponsible, reckless, idiots, selfish, or all of these at once?" tweeted another.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi from the right-wing Les Républicains party, condemned on Twitter "the irresponsibility of this restaurant owner and his customers" at a time when the new English variant of the virus had been detected in the city.
On Wednesday he said he had issued an order banning seasonal rentals from February 6 to 20, in order to prevent a new outbreak of coronavirus cases.
France's fear of new COVID variants
France has been bracing itself for a third national lockdown, although an expected announcement this week has so far failed to materialise. People must currently abide by a strict nationwide curfew from 6 pm to 6 am every day.
A government spokesman said on Wednesday that the curfew "is not slowing down sufficiently" the spread of the virus, and that "various scenarios" were being considered.
The head of the scientific council advising the government said last Sunday that another lockdown "will probably be necessary" to avoid an "extremely difficult situation" from around mid-March.
Professor Jean-Francois Delfraissy told BFMTV that the threat of new variants discovered in other countries "are the equivalent of a second pandemic".
Latest figures published on Tuesday said that more than 1,184,000 people have been vaccinated against the virus since the inoculation programme began a month ago.