The French government’s highly publicised efforts to decentralise the country’s Covid-19 response ran into the sand on Thursday as politicians and business leaders in Marseille responded furiously to the closure of the city’s bars and restaurants, saying they had not been consulted.
When Jean Castex took over as France’s new prime minister at the start of the summer, the self-proclaimed champion of decentralisation promised a radical overhaul of the country’s Covid-19 strategy. The secret to defeating the virus, he said, was to let local authorities decide what was best for them.
Less than three months on, and with infections once again surging, his government has come under a barrage of criticism from local authorities incensed by the “unilateral” imposition of new restrictions on bars, cafés and restaurants in areas worst-affected by a second wave of infections.
In Marseille, the southern hub with a history of resenting edicts passed down from Paris, local officials on Thursday blasted the government’s decision to shutter the city’s bars, restaurants and gyms from Saturday, saying they had not been consulted.
“This is collective punishment!” thundered Renaud Muselier, the conservative head of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region around Marseille. Minutes later, the newly elected left-wing mayor of Marseille, Michèle Rubirola, expressed her “shock” and “anger” in a tirade on Twitter.
J’apprends avec étonnement et colère une décision pour laquelle la Mairie de Marseille n’a pas été consultée. Rien dans la situation sanitaire ne justifie cette annonce. Je n’accepte pas que les Marseillais soient victimes de décisions politiques que personne ne peut comprendre.
— Michèle Rubirola (@MicheleRubirola) September 23, 2020
“There is nothing in the public health situation that justifies this move. I won’t allow the people of Marseille to become the victims of political decisions that no one understands,” Rubirola wrote. “Once again our territory is being sanctioned, punished, singled out,” added her deputy, Benoît Payan, calling for a 10-day reprieve before the new measures come into effect.
Announcing the new restrictions on Wednesday, Health Minister Olivier Véran placed the Mediterranean city and surrounding region on the maximum alert level for the spread of the virus. He said bars and restaurants in Marseille would shut for a renewable period of two weeks starting on Saturday, a measure also applied to faraway Guadeloupe, in the French Caribbean.
Responding to the criticism from officials in Marseille, Véran tweeted that the closures were designed to protect its residents because the epidemic was worsening. He said he had given advance notice to local officials – though Muselier, the regional president, promptly hit back, stating that “30 minutes’ notice hardly accounts for ‘consultations’”.
Health officials in France’s second-largest city have warned that intensive care capacities are close to overload, though the city hall insists that steps taken locally have started bearing fruit in slowing the spread of the virus. Nationally, French health authorities on Wednesday reported 13,072 new confirmed Covid-19 cases over 24 hours, the third time in less than a week that the 13,000 mark was passed.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo also expressed her dismay after the French capital and its suburbs were declared on Wednesday “reinforced danger zones”, meaning bars and restaurants will have to close at 10pm. Paris will also see gyms and other indoor sports facilities closed.
“I do not think that the closure of bars after 10pm is a pertinent measure,” Hidalgo told France 3. “It is hard to understand: how will it prevent the spread of the virus? How can you understand an easing of health protocols in schools on one hand, and on the other we have to close bars at 10pm?”
Along with Paris, 11 metropolitan areas including Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon and Nice are now in a state of “elevated alert”.
Local politicians say the new restrictions are out of proportion to the risks and will devastate businesses already battered by a two-month nationwide lockdown earlier this year.
Franck Trouet of the GNI hotel and restaurant employers’ union denounced the new measures as counterproductive: “By closing our establishments at 10pm we are pushing our customers to party elsewhere: the beaches and banks of rivers while the weather is still nice, and after that to private apartments.”
“It’s already hard for us. There are no tourists, the French tourists don’t come to Paris either. Our turnover is down 50 percent,” Bruno Gabenne, who works at La Fontaine Sully brasserie in Paris, told Reuters.
Government sources said Prime Minister Castex would explain the need for the new restrictions in an interview with France 2 television on Thursday evening. But short of a U-turn, it is hard to see how he will temper the anger in Marseille, two weeks after he called for more consultation with local authorities – not less.
“Paris thinks we’re small fry, that there’s no need to inform us of what happens in our city,” said Bernard Marty, head of the UMIH union of bar and restaurant owners in the Marseille area, warning that the city would “experience insurrectional moments” in the coming days. Industry workers plan to march in protest on Friday and several eateries have already stated that they will not comply with the order to close.
“We represent 7,500 businesses in the Marseille area and we find out on BFM [television] that we have to close,” Marty told French daily Le Monde. “The state doesn’t respect us and will kill us, but we will not die without a fight.”