'Happy days' return to Paris and France as cafes, bars and restaurants finally reopen

Henry Samuel
Waitresses wear PPE to serve customers

Paris gleefully tucked into a moveable feast on Tuesday as cafes, bars and restaurants around France finally reopened for business - albeit with strict social distancing rules - after ten weeks of solitary confinement.

President Emmanuel Macron hailed “the return to happy days” as eating and drinking outlets opened partially in the French capital and fully in the rest of the country, though with at least one metre (three feet) between tables, and no standing at bars for drinks.

With interiors in Paris still out of bounds due to contagion fears, all the action was on the outdoor terraces that spilled onto pavements as phase two of lockdown exit kicked in.

In one sure omen that the gods were smiling on the City of Lights, the official rebirth of Paris cafe culture fell on the hottest day of the year.

As the morning rays warmed the tables of l’Arbre Jaune in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, artist Juliette Andrea Elie, 35, sipped her café crème with partner Philippe Baden Powell, 42, musician-composer, masks in hand.

Juliette Andrea Elie, 35, artist Philippe Baden Powell, 42, musician-composer - Bruno Fert

“This first coffee really feels like the taste of freedom,” said Ms Andrea Elie.

“Paris cafe culture is very strong. This is where people really talk to each other and I get the feeling that given what we’ve been through, people are even keener to chat - I’m even happy to see the waiters!”

In the capital, the mayor has controversially closed off several streets so that bars and restaurants can install more outdoor seating, and are allowing owners to spread out more on sidewalks and even in some parking spaces.

Up the hill from Ménilmontant, Yves Billon, 73, a TV documentary director, closed his eyes on the terrace of brasserie-bar-cafe l’Entrepot's.

“This has the taste of forgetfulness.”

“And renewal,” said his friend Annette Montein, 65, retired English teacher.

Yves Billon, 73, TV documentary director and Annette Montein, 65, retired English teacher. -  Bruno Fert

“It’s very beautiful and we’re enjoying every drop.”

In true Parisian style, the pair then shifted seamlessly to grumbling about the evils of consumerism after months of abstinence.

In the same breath, Mr Billon added: “That said, what I’ve missed most are the restaurants. I’d had enough of cooking and shopping every day and am looking forward to eating out.”

Inside, owner Achoor Abdel Guerfi was preparing drinks behind the bar.

“It’s been tough, we’re not quite ready and can’t serve food yet but at least we’re open. I’ve had lots of regulars ring up to find out whether we were open and to book. At first, I thought they’d be scared but here they are.”

Entrepot's brasserie-bar-cafe Paris 20. Achoor Abdel Guerfi, owner. -  Bruno Fert

With some 300,000 cafes, bars and restaurants reopening, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said that they would continue to benefit from handouts from a government solidarity fund until the end of the year to help cover fixed costs.

"Even if it is hard to hear on a day when the sun is shining and the cafes are reopening, the hardest part is still ahead of us in social and economic terms," he said, warning of an 11 per cent recession.

That said, with travel curbs lifted and sunbathing permitted on beaches around the country, British tourists can expect the full Gallic experience this summer if they do reach French shores.

At the Brasserie de Isle Saint Louis opposite Notre Dame cathedral, the owner was taking a day to prepare to reopen after the longest closure since the eatery was founded in 1893. "I only hope Parisians make up the shortfall because we rely a lot on tourists," he said.

Rue de Buci. 6th district. -  Bruno Fert

As lunchtime approached, social distancing looked increasingly tenuous as Parisians flocked to restaurants, many of which were serving skeleton menus on day one.

At La Palette near Odeon, waitress Alexandra Montis, 37, carried a purple disinfectant spray on a silver platter. “Normally this would be champagne but I have to clean tables with disposable wipes every time a customer leaves,” she said.

Adjusting her transparent visor, she said: “It’s horrible to work behind this.  I’m sweating like mad and it’s hard to communicate. Nobody understands anything I say - all I hear is my screeching voice.”

When asked whether customers obeyed distancing rules, she said: “The French are not like the Anglo-Saxons. They don’t like discipline. They are rebels. When I told a customer this morning to wear a mask inside, he got irritated.”

“This is my first day and frankly I don’t feel reassured at all.”

La Palette restaurant near Odéon in Paris - Bruno Fert

Beside her, a group of four lawyers tucked into a croque-madame with the odd glass of white wine.

“After being stuck in Paris with no garden or balcony, this is bliss,” said Diane Steinmetz, 40.

She disagreed with claims that the French may never regain their love of eating out in the wake of the epidemic.

“Paris has been through many dramas. We got through the war, we got through other epidemics There is no reason for us to change now.”