The French government warned restaurant owners Monday that illicit openings would jeopardise their Covid-19 aid, as several defied the pandemic shutdown to serve meals in protest of a measure they say is increasingly untenable.
Cafes and restaurants have been ordered closed since October 30 to curb the outbreak, and cash-strapped owners fear it will be several months before they can get back to business as usual.
"All I'm asking for is the right to work," said Stephane Turillon, a chef in Cusance, eastern France, who launched his campaign for a nationwide protest last month.
Around 100 people gathered in tents he set up outside "La Source Bleue," but after discussions with police and his lawyer he refrained from serving a sit-down meal, offering dishes as takeaway instead.
"We're not going to reopen because I risk having to go to jail or losing my financial aid," Turillon told journalists.
He later led a protest march of some 250 people to the local cemetery to place his apron and a French flag to honour "French artisans" forced to close during the pandemic.
Dozens of owners emulated his call to action, saying they could not survive on takeout service or deliveries alone, even with the government offering thousands of euros a month to businesses forced to close during the health crisis.
Kathia Boucher offered a single item, a hearty potato-and-cheese gratin known as tartiflette, at her brasserie in Ligescourt, northern France, where clients were spaced two metres apart.
"My sales from today will go toward paying my fixed costs," said Boucher, who said she had gotten work at a car part factory as well as cleaning jobs in order to make ends meet.
The protests came as Paris police said Saturday that agents had discovered 24 restaurants operating illicitly last Thursday and Friday alone, and warned they would step up checks following reports of dozens of similar cases in recent weeks.
One was caught serving judges who worked at the nearby appeals court on the Ile de la Cite, opposite the Paris police headquarters, Le Parisien reported.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said owners who defied the shutdowns would see their Covid solidarity funds suspended for a month, "and if they do it again, they won't get any more at all."
"It's extremely hard for restaurants, economically and in terms of morale," he told RTL radio. "But in no way does that justify not respecting the rules."
- 'Not enough' -
Restaurants and other businesses that have been forced to close during the health crisis can receive up to 10,000 euros ($12,000) a month, or compensation equal to 20 percent of their revenues from 2019, capped at 200,000 euros per month.
But in Lyon, a bastion of French gastronomy, Yannick Moulin called the government's threats "ridiculous" as he discreetly opened the basement of his restaurant Le Francois Villon for a group of regulars on Monday.
"I have loans to pay back, my rent is 5,000 euros a month: the solidarity funds of 10,000 euros are not enough," he said.
On the island of Corsica, Nathalie Vicens opened her cafe in Ajaccio, not far from the police station, for a handful of friends.
"I'm hoping to make our public officials think a little bit and find another solution besides a complete and total closure," she said.
Others protested by setting out empty plates and glasses on terrasse tables, including Jose Preto at his Tir-Bouchon in central Paris.
"I'm not going to break the law," he said, "but if this situation goes on, nothing short of mass deaths are going to stop us from opening."
The restaurant protests have garnered widespread support on social media, illustrating the growing sense of Covid fatigue that pushed President Emmanuel Macron to avoid a new lockdown with the new round of measures announced Friday.
But the government has said restaurants will remain closed in order to avoid social gatherings that could accelerate the virus's spread and require officials to impose more drastic restrictions.
It has also ordered ski resorts to shut down their lifts, which sparked a protest Monday by around 100 seasonal workers who blocked a highway near Modane in the Alps.
"If I don't work during the season, I can't live," lift operator Sophie Gregoire told AFP. "I have a family, children, rent, a car -- all the bills that everyone has."