By Elizabeth Pineau and Caroline Pailliez
PARIS, Dec 1 (Reuters) - "Chez Francoise" is a discreetly located venue near the French parliament whose visitors' book boasts signatures from former leaders including Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Options include a "Menu Parlementaire" - three courses including wild boar pate with chestnuts, veal and crepes suzette.
In late September, as a second wave of COVID-19 infection loomed, government scientific advisers wanted new restrictions on bars, restaurants and cafes.
Fearing his business would suffer, Pascal Mousset, who owns Chez Francoise and four other restaurants in the French capital, decided to seek help from an old contact. "For pity's sake, don't close Paris," Mousset texted to Alain Griset, a junior minister at the finance and economy ministry.
Mousset recounted the exchange in an interview with Reuters. Until Griset joined the government in July, the politician was a regular at "Chez Francoise." Griset said he had known Mousset for years, but that their contacts over COVID-19 were part of a normal exchange of views between government and business representatives.
Mousset's effort illustrates a broader campaign in France and globally by business owners to push back against curbs sought by scientists to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. In Paris, it appeared to help, at least for a while. Restaurants and cafes stayed open for a few more weeks.
It's a fight that has played out in different ways around the world. In France – the country that invented haute cuisine, where many voters see cafes and bars as fundamental to life - the hospitality business took their cause to the highest political levels.
Celebrity chefs made their case on chat shows. Restaurateurs protested on the streets. And the campaign, described to Reuters by more than a dozen people who were involved on all sides, involved many meetings behind closed doors.
The battle was often unequal, according to four scientists involved in advising the French government. They said their understanding of virus transmission sometimes took a back seat to what was politically and socially acceptable.
For Yazdan Yazdanpanah, a member of the Scientific Council, an independent advisory body consulted by the government, the experience showed the scientific community needed to work harder to make itself heard.
"Should we have taken tougher, more coercive measures?" he said. "Should we have explained things better? We need to learn how to make an effort with communication, with education, much more than before."
A health ministry spokesman said the government had always put public health interests first. A spokeswoman for the French presidential administration said consultation with industry groups was done in a transparent way.
"At no point did we compromise on the public health advice," she said.
Two months on, restaurateurs are again fighting for relief from a renewed lockdown. New infections in France have retreated from an early November peak, but the country is averaging more than 500 deaths a day, one of the most globally.
WAY OF LIFE
French people spend more time than those of any other developed nation eating or drinking, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. A significant share of that is spent in cafes and restaurants. For many working people, lunch with colleagues or clients is the focal point of the day.
"It's a virus that's very damaging for the way of life a la Francaise - eating, a glass of wine, a chat," said Julien Borowczyk, a doctor and member of parliament who is chairing a commission into how the government managed the epidemic.
On top of this, the Paris region has the highest concentration in Europe of jobs in accommodation and food services, with just under 400,000 people working in the sector in 2017, according to data from the European Union statistics agency Eurostat.
In August, French people were enjoying their summer. The first lockdown had ended in May, cases were down sharply, and the country's nearly 200,000 bars, restaurants and cafes were buzzing.
But already that month, infections were accelerating. The Scientific Council had warned officials to expect a resurgence of infections.
On Sept. 11, the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a study showing adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have said they dined at a restaurant than others. French scientists said the U.S. research confirmed their suspicions: After private homes, hospitality was an alarming vector for infection.
People were not following safety guidelines properly, said Didier Lepelletier, co-chair of a COVID-19 working group of the High Council for Public Health, the main advisory body for the government, who helped draft the guidelines.
The day the CDC report came out, President Emmanuel Macron chaired a meeting of his COVID-19 taskforce. Health Minister Olivier Veran pressed for restaurants, bars and cafes to be shut down in Marseille and Bordeaux, cities where the virus was most rampant, according to two people briefed on the exchanges.
Macron said no, telling Veran to concentrate on improving testing. He was worried about the economy and whether the French would accept the measures, said a lawmaker affiliated to his backers in parliament.
Macron's office declined to comment on the exchanges at the meeting, as did the health ministry spokesman.
On Sept. 22, the Scientific Council issued a memo recommending bars and restaurants be closed if they could not follow tighter safety measures.
The government ordered the closure of bars and restaurants in the Marseille region; those in Bordeaux stayed open.
The hospitality business thought Paris could be next.
"We said to ourselves: we need to do something," said Stephane Manigold, owner of four Paris restaurants including one whose main course of sautéed squid, Iran lemon black butter, caramelized seeds and marinated squash has helped it earn a recommendation in Vogue magazine.
The industry started leveraging its influence.
Restaurant dinners and Zoom meetings were urgently convened so prominent figures could cook up an action plan, said Jacques Bally, former head of the Gault et Millau restaurant guide, who is in touch with many of the people involved.
Lobby groups were joined by celebrity chefs including Philippe Etchebest, the French equivalent of TV chef Gordon Ramsay, and Alain Ducasse, who runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant at London's Dorchester hotel.
Under the banner "We're staying open," the coalition organized street protests in Marseille and Paris.
Helping their case, scientists representing a minority view published two open letters arguing that talk of a second wave was overblown.
Behind the scenes, Manigold was sending private messages to Bruno Le Maire, the finance and economy minister and an old acquaintance, on WhatsApp.
He told Le Maire that state support for furloughed restaurant staff was less generous than the minister thought. The minister asked him to keep sending "pertinent information," Manigold said.
"Everyone goes to restaurants," said Manigold. "Doctors and politicians are bon-viveurs." Le Maire's ministry declined to comment, referring questions to the health ministry.
Le Maire's deputy, Griset, held 16 meetings about or with representatives of the hospitality sector between July 24 and Nov. 15, according to his official diary. That was more meetings than he held with representatives of any other economic sector over the period.
Griset told Reuters that hospitality was one of the worst-hit areas, so it made sense to hear their views. He said public health never took a back seat to economic interests.
Macron was also involved. During this time he went for a meal – off his official schedule – at a restaurant in the sixth arrondissement of Paris where he used to eat before he was elected, according to an industry source. He talked to kitchen staff and bosses of that restaurant about their concerns, the source said.
The presidential administration declined to comment.
On Sept. 29, three days after the owner of "Chez Francoise" had texted Griset, France recorded just over 8,000 new COVID-19 cases, a decline from earlier in the month.
Griset's boss Le Maire and Prime Minister Jean Castex granted requests from associations representing the industry for an urgent meeting. On the agenda: the possible closure of all restaurants, bars and cafes across France, one person present told Reuters.
Industry delegates had a proposal. If they promised to stick to stricter guidelines for restaurants, could they stay open? The officials at the meeting decided to explore the proposal further.
The High Council for Public Health approved it and a week later, when new restrictions were announced, closing restaurants was not among them.
Asked to comment, the prime minister's office told Reuters the government had acted on the opinion of the High Council, adding that measures it had taken succeeded in containing the second wave, while limiting the damage to the economy.
"The management of this crisis requires walking a tightrope between protecting public health and the protection of our economy. That is what the government does," the statement said.
Four weeks after that meeting, on Oct. 27, France's COVID-19 numbers had skyrocketed: 33,417 new cases and 148 new intensive care patients. A total of 523 deaths were recorded.
The next day, Macron announced a nationwide lockdown including the closure of all restaurants and cafes. They will stay closed through Christmas and the New Year and not re-open until Jan. 20 at the earliest.
In the high-stakes contest with France's restaurant and café industry, scientists had been at a disadvantage, said Yazdanpanah, the Scientific Council member.
"We're not going to protest in the street." (Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Writing by Christian Lowe; Edited by Sara Ledwith)