Defiant French restaurateurs open doors despite COVID closure orders

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By Emma Beswick  & AFP
French chef Stephane Turillon serves meals outside his restaurant "La source bleue" in Cusance, eastern France, on February 1, 2021
French chef Stephane Turillon serves meals outside his restaurant "La source bleue" in Cusance, eastern France, on February 1, 2021   -  Copyright  Credit: AFP

Thousands of people, including several chefs, have backed a French restaurateur who plans to serve protest meals on Monday despite a fresh warning from the country's finance minister.

Stéphane Turillon, owner of La Source Bleue in Cusance, eastern France, has said he will open his establishment even though government-ordered closures remain in place for all restaurants and bars, with them only able to offer a takeaway service.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire warned restaurant owners on Monday that they risked losing COVID-19 financial aid if they open in defiance of the pandemic shutdown.

Angry owners say their livelihoods are at risk since the closures were ordered on October 30, with little prospect of a return to business as usual anytime soon.

The whole of metropolitan France is also under a 6pm curfew, after which people should not be outside their homes without a valid reason and shops should close.

"I will always defend my profession. My job is not to click and collect and put food in a box. I have always been a restaurateur, I love what I do," Turillon said.

"I risk three years in prison, a €60,000 fine, and up to six months of closure, I am aware of it," the restaurateur told local media France Bleu Besançon on Monday morning, adding that he is"sacrificing" himself for "the common good".

Turillon will open his establishment at noon and be there to meet those who have turned out to order a lunch of fried trout. He said social distancing would be respected and mask-wearing would be mandatory.

He will then take part in a "symbolic march for the survival of the businesses" in the area at 1.30 pm, according to France Bleu.

But Le Maire told RTL radio that owners caught serving clients would see their COVID solidarity funds suspended for a month, "and if they do it again, they won't get any more at all".

"I don't want this to become widespread, to become either a habit or a way of braving the ban," he said, adding that "this is not a ban, but a collective rule to guarantee the health of all".

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal also doubled down on the finance minister's warnings saying there would be "financial penalties" for the "very small minority of restaurants that decide to open".

Restaurants and other businesses that have been forced to close during the health crisis can receive up to €10,000 a month, or compensation equal to 20 per cent of their revenues from 2019, capped at €200,000 per month.

But many owners say the money is not enough to make up for lost sales as they have to keep paying rent.

Turillon's act of protest is not the first in France; last week, a restaurant owner in the Mediterranean city of Nice was detained for questioning after serving lunch to around 100 people.

Christophe Wilson's protest garnered a wave of support on social media, with the hashtag #LiberezChristophe (Free Christophe) trending on Twitter as messages expressed anger at his treatment and the dire financial straits of restaurants.

What's more, police in Paris said they discovered 24 restaurants operating illicitly on Thursday and Friday, warning they would step up controls.

On Saturday, the French government announced that "non-food shopping centres with an area of more than 20,000 square metres" would be forced to close from Sunday to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19.