World Events

In France, Southerners Grumble at Virus Restrictions From Up North

PARIS — The longstanding antagonism that pits Paris, the occasionally overbearing French capital, against Marseille, its sunnier, more rambunctious rival on the Mediterranean coast, has found a new battleground: the coronavirus.

Politicians and businesses in Marseille and its neighbor, Aix-en-Provence, are furious since the government ordered all bars, cafes and restaurants in those two cities — and nowhere else in mainland France — closed for 15 days starting on Sunday evening, to counter rising Covid-19 hospitalizations in the region.

“It’s a catastrophe, we are all anticipating permanent closures,” said Laurent Ceccarini, the owner of two restaurants, both a short walk from the Old Port in Marseille.

Mr. Ceccarini said he was experiencing an unpleasant sense of déjà-vu as he threw out perishable goods and prepared to put his roughly 40 employees back on paid furlough, just like in March, when France went on a full, countrywide lockdown.

In the center of Marseille, a city of over 800,000 residents, French television on Monday showed some shuttered cafes and others that had briefly flouted the restrictions — until patrolling police officers calmly but sternly asked coffee-sipping customers to leave the sun-drenched terraces.

National authorities and some local health officials say the closures are a painful but necessary brake to prevent hospitals in both cities from being overwhelmed.

In Marseille’s main hospitals, there are currently 177 Covid-19 patients, up from 66 a month ago, and 50 of them are taking up more than half of all available beds in intensive care units, according to the public hospital system.

Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said last week that the measures were “temporary” but not “arbitrary.”

“If we ran the risk of waiting to see if the situation improved on its own, we would also run the risk of having to impose even stronger measures in the coming days or weeks,” said Mr. Véran, who on Friday rushed to Marseille, where criticism has been most vocal, to try to quell the frustration.

“We can consult, but we can’t allow ourselves to procrastinate,” he added.

But some opponents of the targeted shutdown say it was imposed, with little warning, by vindictive government officials who want to punish Marseille’s rebel streak, which in recent months has coalesced around the figure of Didier Raoult, an eminent microbiologist from the city. His contrarian stance — including a claim, rejected by other scientists, that common drugs can cure Covid-19 — has endeared him to Marseille and its political class.

Officials are mounting protests and legal challenges against the new measures. One even said that the municipal police, ignoring government instructions, would not issue fines for establishments that broke the rules.

Laurent Lhardit, Marseille’s deputy mayor in charge of the economy and tourism, cautioned against painting the government’s action and the local reaction as merely regional rivalry. “This isn’t a game between the O.M. and P.S.G.” he said, referring to Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, two of France’s biggest soccer rivals.

But he blamed the government for failing to take into account Marseille’s particularities, including 40 percent of the population living at or below the poverty line.

“Any stress to the economy here has consequences that are bigger than anywhere else,” Mr. Lhardit said.

Instead, the government has managed to unite Marseille’s notoriously fractious political scene in opposition to the new rules, though the central government has promised that they could be tweaked midway if the situation improved. One group of regional officials and trade unions has filed a lawsuit challenging the restaurant shutdown.

Over the weekend, hundreds of restaurant and cafe owners, politicians in tow, protested in front of Marseille’s commercial court with signs that read “Save our jobs” and chants like “We want to work!”

And on Monday, dozens of protesters briefly blocked a busy roundabout in the city. “They stopped us from working,” one demonstrator told local media. “Now this is all we have left to do: making ourselves heard.”

But health professionals in the region are voicing their own worries. A group of nineteen hospital department heads in Marseille, writing in La Provence, the local newspaper, acknowledged the “terrible consequences” of restrictions on the local economy but argued in favor of action.

“We must therefore anticipate, because tomorrow hospital staff don’t want to have to choose which patient will go in intensive care or not,” the doctors wrote in an op-ed, which was partly a response to criticism by Dr. Raoult that health officials were scaremongering about the situation in Marseille.

Only Guadeloupe, a French territory in the Caribbean, has been forced to enact measures similar to those in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. Other cities, including Paris, have tightened restrictions on bars, but have not closed them completely.

While the clash between local politicians in Marseille and government elites in Paris reflects a longstanding tension between the two cities, it also reflects conflicting views on which statistics to look at.

Opponents, pointing to the region’s decreasing number of new infections and test-positivity rate, argue that it is unfair to impose a mini-lockdown just as the peak of the second epidemic wave has passed.

The government focuses instead on the rising number of new hospital patients, and the growing strain on hospitals trying to make room by deferring treatment for non-coronavirus patients.

Authorities in Paris are also considering a nationwide picture that is getting worse. There were over 16,000 new infections recorded on Thursday, a record high, and hospitalizations are creeping up.

Mr. Lhardit, the deputy mayor, did not dispute the figures, but he blamed the government for announcing the new restrictions with little warning. National authorities “maybe wanted to make an example” of Marseille, he said, telling other cities “here is the ugly duckling, if you aren’t nice this is what is going to happen.”

For restaurant and cafe owners who were already struggling to recover from the spring lockdown, new restrictions mean lost revenue, more loans and bleak winter prospects, despite government aid.

Mr. Ceccarini, the restaurant owner, said he understood the need to relieve pressure on hospitals, but found it “absurd” to close restaurants and bars in the region’s two biggest cities, but not nearby towns.

“I don’t see how we can lower the number of patients in intensive care in Marseille while at the same time leaving establishments open 5 or 10 kilometers away,” he said.

Maybe, he added only half-jokingly, this is a “settling of scores between the capital, the government elites, and the rebels in Marseille.”


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