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French ministers accused of dining at secret restaurants during pandemic restrictions

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By Euronews with AP, AFP
FILE: Chairs are stacked inside the famous Cafe de Flore closed along with all cafes and restaurants, Paris, France, March 15, 2021
FILE: Chairs are stacked inside the famous Cafe de Flore closed along with all cafes and restaurants, Paris, France, March 15, 2021   -   Copyright  LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP or licensors

French authorities have opened an investigation after a TV documentary accused unnamed government ministers of dining in secret restaurants in violation of coronavirus restrictions.

The documentary that aired on French network M6 over the weekend featured an unidentified man saying that he had eaten in two or three clandestine restaurants "with a certain number of ministers."

It also described luxury parties attended by the rich and beautiful with all the trappings of gourmet luxury: caviar, champagne, menus from Michelin star chefs and no masks.

The Paris prosecutor's office said an investigation was opened Sunday into possible charges of "endangerment and undeclared labour."

Investigators will also "verify whether the gatherings were organised in violation of sanitary rules and determine who were the potential organisers and participants," the prosecutor said in a statement.

The prosecutor's office said Monday that the investigation was continuing despite reports that the man featured in the documentary had retracted his claim.

'No privilege'

French cabinet members promptly denied knowledge of such wrongdoing.

"There is no privilege for anyone and I would be curious if this restaurateur gave the names of the ministers if he is so well informed," Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told French media.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin asked police to look into the claims and, if they turn out to be substantiated, to "prosecute the organisers and participants of these clandestine dinners."

French restaurants have been closed since October to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The controversy comes as France just entered a new partial lockdown over the weekend in response to a dramatic rise in coronavirus hospitalisations.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on LCI television Sunday night that authorities have been investigating reports of clandestine parties and restaurants for months. 200 suspects have been identified and face "heavy punishment,'' he added.

Government ministers "have a duty to be totally irreproachable and exemplary.'' Attal said.

'We Want Names'

The accusations captured the attention of social media, with the hashtag #OnVeutLesNoms (We Want Names) trending first on Twitter and others such as #MangeonsLesRiches (Let's Eat the Rich) also gaining popularity.

Antoine Léaument of far-left party France Insoumise tweeted: "Endless lines of students for food aid; 8 million people in France who need food aid (...) and underground restaurants for the rich at €460 a meal? So #Let'sEatTheRich!"

Others regretted the fact that the retraction of the key witness in the documentary had no impact on popular anger.

"His denials will have no effect on the desire to believe that ministers have indeed broken the law," tweeted philosopher Raphaël Enthoven.

"The People's Court (...) thirsts for blood and wants names, no matter what."