After seven weeks of a record-breaking strike that shuttered the Paris rail network and brought chaos to the French capital, Paris’s restaurant owners are still counting the cost. FRANCE 24 reports.
A stream of protesters pours past a restaurant in downtown Paris. Holding placards, singing loudly, sometimes clad in the bright orange vests of the hardline CGT union, they make their way to Paris’s protest central, La Place de la République.
The restaurant’s telephone, normally humming with calls, sits silent. Smells from the kitchen waft up into the seating area. Inside the wood-panelled warmth of Le Repaire de Cartouche, where clients come to enjoy wild game, terrine and its wine list, the chef was wryly despairing.
“I’m up to my ass in these protesters,” sighed Rodolphe Paquin, the restaurant’s genial, silver-haired chef and owner, as he surfaced from the kitchen in chef’s whites.
“It’s the same thing every day,” said Paquin, raising his voice to be heard above the clamour outside. “Just look,” he said, gesturing at the window. “Bunch of morons,” he muttered.
For the last seven weeks he’s seen his varied clientele of locals, rugby players, models and Japanese tourists dwindle to a trickle.
“In a good year we do 150 covers on a Saturday night. Last Saturday we did five,” he said.
“Normally we do about 50 family Christmas dinners – of between six to 10, or up to 80 people. This year we just did one.”
Since December 5, Paris has been besieged by strikes in protest at French President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to reform the country’s pensions into a single, universal points-based system. Unions claim the reforms will make people work longer for less and launched a record-breaking seven weeks of strikes.
The Paris métro has sat largely shuttered, ballets and operas have been cancelled, and restaurant and hotel takings have been “catastrophic”, according to the GNI, the French national association of independent hotel and restaurant professionals.
By mid-January the GNI put the estimated drop in restaurant revenue at between 10 and 25 percent, for an estimated total of €220 million.
Some unions declared a “pause” in the transport strike on Monday but on Friday protesters had once again taken to the streets in a seventh day of nationwide action against the reforms.
“What gets me more than anything,” said Paquin, “is the hypocrisy.”
“If you only work 35 hours [the French working week], at the end of your life you’re not going to be earning €5,000. When I work 35 hours that’s when I don’t come to work. Most of the team here start at 10 and leave at midnight.
“And if you start working at 28 and you want to retire at 52, that’s not a career, that’s a trial period,” he said. “Either we evolve or we fall into the ravine.”
All of Paris’s restaurants have been badly hit by the strikes, but Paquin’s has been hit harder than most.
Sitting in what Paquin wryly referred to as the “golden triangle” of Bastille, Nation and République – where most of the city’s protests take place – the restaurant has been surrounded by cordoned-off streets, escalating protests and police vans parked outside.
“We spend more time letting the CRS (police) in to take a piss and have a coffee than we do attending to clients,” laughed Paquin.
“Why would you come into the area?” he asked. “When you risk being hassled by angry protesters?”
“They’re killing Paris,” he said of the protesters. “’I’d sell tomorrow if someone offered me a good price.”
‘A ghost town’
“It’s been a ghost town,” said Holybelly’s Nicolas Alary, 33, who for the past six years has run two Australian-styled breakfast and lunch cafés with his wife Sarah.
“I will remember December January 2019-2020, as like the dark time where I would go to bed at night, not knowing if we would make it.”
As soon as the strike kicked in, their largely tourist clientele – who often queue around the block for Paris’s best pancakes – disappeared overnight, explained Alary.
“December is historically a great month for us … But we could see our cash flow just just melting … To be honest I don’t even want to look at the figures.”
With no customers to wait on, staff spent their days folding napkins, polishing glasses and cleaning “every single corner of this place”.
“I think the scariest thing about this whole thing was that there was no end to it,” said Alary, who explained that the French tax system made it very hard for them to keep a buffer.
Alary was so worried that he began posting on Instagram about how tough it was. To his delight, locals responded and some walked for hours to come and support them. One of the more positive things to come out of the strike, he said, was a fresh solidarity between French chefs and the support he received from the local community.
Alary was keen not to be seen to be taking sides. But he felt the strikers were “taking money from the pockets of the wrong people”, and felt bad that he hadn’t been able to give staff a Christmas bonus that year.
Although he voted for Macron, he said that next time he would vote for “whoever is promising to do as little as possible”.
“This country is shutting down when change is offered. At least we’ll know we have five years of no strikes. I just want to be allowed to work.”
For now he just hopes that the “pause” in the strikes turns into a very long one. As soon as the métro began running on Monday, it was like a “tap coming on”, said Alary.
Despite Friday’s demonstration kicking off a few minutes down the road, the café was humming with customers and the smell of fresh coffee. A group of tourists were gathered outside.
“Yes, this is more like it,” said Alary, looking reassured, as he glanced around at the red leather banquettes.
But far away from the protests, on the other side of town in the affluent 7th arrondissement (district), the impact of the strike was still being felt. Despite the Paris métro’s return to mostly normal service, Stéphane Jégo of Chez L’Ami Jean, said that business had failed to pick up.
It has been “catastrophic”, said Jégo, a vital, dark-haired 48-year-old. “We’re losing between €2,500 to 3,000 a day.”
“It hasn’t been this bad since Charlie,” he said, referring to the deadly terror attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, “but that was just one night.”
“People come here because it’s warm and cosy, they want to be surrounded by friends and comforted with delicious food,” he said, as saucepans simmered and staff slapped down cutlery on tables.
He’s got used to the phone ringing every morning with cancellations, deliveries arriving two hours late and Parisians being on edge.
“I have friends who’ve shut shop – they can’t keep going any more,” he said, adding that his own kitty couldn’t sustain them for much longer.
“But you can’t just let people go,” he said, referring to his “incredible” team of 18, some of whom had walked for more than two hours to be at work on time.
Jégo was keen to stress the strike’s impact on the whole food chain, including producers, explaining that the restaurant’s old-school cuisine is sourced from a particular carrot producer or a pigeon producer, rather than big brands.
“We’re in the middle of truffle season,” he said, growing visibly animated, “and we couldn’t buy any because we didn’t have the customers.”
Jégo, along with his fellow chefs, thought the timing of the strike was particularly egregious, when December is their busiest month. And he was tired of what he saw as the government’s “tactic” of letting the protesters wear themselves out.
“We’ve been taken hostage by a small part of the population,” said Jégo, “who struggle to understand that we have to evolve.”
“You can have the best food in the world, the best restaurant, in the best city. But without customers, you have nothing.”