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Takeaways and 4pm happy hour: How French restaurants are coping with curfew

In nine French cities long leisurely dinners out are a thing of the past as the curfew obliges everyone to be home by 9pm - so how are restaurants adapting to the new situation?

Takeaways and 4pm happy hour: How French restaurants are coping with curfew
Restaurants and cafés must abide by strict health rules and a 9pm curfew. Photo: AFP

In France, dinner is traditionally rarely served before 8pm, especially when eaten out. So when the French government declared a 9pm curfew in Paris and eight other cities hard hit by Covid-19 in a bid to curb the spiralling virus rates, restaurants got a new challenge on their plates: How to make up for the loss of the post-9pm profits? 

READ ALSO What you need to know about France's nighttime curfew

Some restaurants have employed what might seem like a radical strategy and now offer early-bird dinner services: come at 6.30, eat at 7pm, leave in time to be home by 9pm. 

While some sniggered about this kind of incentive – “are we going to eat like Americans?” some jokingly asked – some French are determined to save their restaurants – even if that means eating early.

 

 

An online initiative aims to entice more people to go out to eat early, through the Twitter hashtag #J'aimemesrestos (I love my restaurants):

 

Early happy hour(s)

Still, some restaurants reckoned that keeping an evening service was too big a risk.

“Stopping everything at 9pm means having to stop serving food around 8pm maximum,” said Lionel, 46, the owner of the restaurant Le Royal Cadet in the lively 9th arrondissement in Paris.

“We are saying goodbye to half of the turnover,” he told The Local as he smoked his cigarette on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant.

“Even our parents have never experienced something like this, it's unseen since World War II,” he said.

Lionel had taken what he called a “radical decision” and completely stopped doing the evening service. His restaurant now only serves food during lunch time.

“For the rest of the day, I make money on drinks,” he said.

They had brought happy hour forward an hour – it now started at 4pm and lasted until 8pm – he explained, before interrupting himself in order to ask two customers not to forget to write their names and phone numbers on the register. 

New health rules

All French restaurants now have to comply with an updated, stricter health protocol set in place to limit spread within their establishments. These include spreading out tables even more than they had to this summer, which itself has led to a drop in revenue.

Eric, 44, a waiter at a restaurant on the Faubourg Poissonnière street, was pretty gloomy about the future.
 
“We haven’t done anything special for now,” he told The Local. Even though quite a lot of customers were sitting outside sipping coffee and other hot drinks, Eric was resigned. 

“Maybe we will change things later on, but we need a few days to figure out what we’re going to do,” he said.

For now, serving just lunch and skipping the dinner shift seems to be a path several restaurants owners have chosen to go down. After the curfew announcement, Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy declared that his restaurant now had a new schedule, and would greet its customers “for lunch, for the moment.”

 

Hopes for more early diners

But some restaurants have experience with less rigid food schedules, like those used to serving tourists who get hungry before French dinner time.

“Usually it's tourists who have dinner around 6.30pm, but it’s been a while since we've seen any of them,” said Sophie, 34, a full-time waitress at another restaurant on Rue de Cadet that offers an all-day food service.

Sophie was hoping that the early dinner initiative would become a real trend.

“Unless people decide to have dinner a bit earlier, our evening service will be insignificant,” she said, while writing today's menu on a small blackboard.

As she glanced around the empty restaurant, Sophie said the Covid-19 health crisis had cost them more than tourists.
 
“Even our regular customers don’t come as often as they used to. They come by and say hi, but they don’t eat here anymore because they are scared,” she said.
 
“General panic doesn’t help us at all! So this, plus the 10pm rule, now the curfew… it’s starting to be very complicated,” she said.
 
“Usually we have four chefs who take turns during the weeks, and five staff serving. Now we are just two waiters for the lunch service, and two people in the kitchen. We don’t really have a choice.

“We are beginning to worry about the restaurant’s future, and our profession’s future as well. It’s very uncertain right now, we don’t know where we’re going and how things will evolve.”

Takeaway

For people who just aren't hungry at 6.30pm, many restaurants are also offering a takeaway service.

Delivery drivers are covered by the worker exemption to the curfew, so you can still have food delivered to your home after 9pm, either from one of the traditional takeway providers or your favourite restaurant may be offering to send dinner to your home.

Many restaurants are now advertising a takeaway service, either for collection before 9pm or for delivery after 9pm and this is a nice way to support small businesses that are having a tough time.

 

 

 

By Anne Brivet

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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