MARSEILLE – Angry restaurant and bar owners demonstrated in Marseille on Friday to challenge a French government order to close all public venues as of Saturday to battle resurgent virus infections.
The protesters, and local officials in France’s second-biggest city, are also threatening legal action, to try to block the order via the courts. They argue that Marseille’s virus case rise has been stabilizing, and that the central government in Paris is unfairly singling out Marseille for the toughest virus measures in the nation.
On a visit to the southern city, French Health Minister Olivier Veran defended the government's decisions.
“I am fully aware that some of the measures being debated ... raise concerns, questions, even anger,” he acknowledged during a news conference at the Timone public hospital. “These measures are necessary. They are temporary, but they are not arbitrary.”
The government argues that hospitals in this Mediterranean city are under strain and the closures are the only way to stem the spread while avoiding new lockdowns. The French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe is under similar orders.
The central government has ordered less severe measures in a dozen other cities, including Paris, where infections and hospitalizations are growing, but the rate of infection per 100,000 people is lower than Marseille or Guadeloupe.
The Paris police chief issued on Friday a set of anti-coronavirus marching orders for the French capital that will force bars and bistros to shut down by 10 p.m. starting Monday — excluding large restaurants — and starting this weekend will forbid gatherings of more than 10 people in public spaces, from streets to parks. Even street music or music that can be heard on the streets is forbidden. Gyms also are to close except those used for school activities.
The orders signed by police chief Didier Lallement are for an initial 15-day period that can be renewed. Police will start patrolling to ensure the restrictions are observed.
On Thursday, France reported more than 16,000 new infections, and more than 10% of intensive care beds nationwide are now occupied by COVID-19 patients. France has reported 31,511 virus-related deaths, among the highest tolls in Europe.
Rallied by a union of hospitality businesses, crowds protested Friday in front of a Marseille courthouse, and some business owners threatened to defy the closure order.
The president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region that includes Marseille, Renaud Muselier, said he would file an urgent legal complaint Friday protesting actions "restricting the exercise of the freedom to do business ... in a disproportionate way,” according to local media reports.
The protest reflects a longstanding rivalry between Marseille and Paris that most often manifests itself during soccer matches, but also runs under the surface on other issues as well.