Timothy Searchinger is a research scholar at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs
Over the past six weeks, I’ve eaten out at restaurants five times, attended two concerts, visited a large, busy indoor mall three times, had two haircuts, and repeatedly watched school kids run around the schoolyard. But that’s all been responsible behavior — because instead of being locked down in my house in the D.C. area, I’ve been in France, where life and the economy are now carrying on close to normal.
What France, like virtually all of Europe, has shown is that following standard expert recommendations for dealing with covid-19 works. France had a massive outbreak of covid-19 in the spring, almost as soon as anyone realized the novel coronavirus had reached Europe. The deaths began occurring late March and reached more than 24,000 by the end of April — a higher death rate than even the United States at the time.
But while the outbreak occurred primarily in only two parts of France, French President Emmanuel Macron imposeda severe, nationwide lockdown on March 16. And during that lockdown, the government put extensive testing and contact tracing in place. Almost exactly two months later, France mostly reopened. And for the last two and a half months, the country has functioned in a primarily open status with around 500 new cases per day and only about 450 deaths in the last month.
The French lockdown was severe. People were only allowed out, after filling out a form, to take care of elderly relatives or to go grocery shopping. To buffer the economic impact, the government directly paid a portion of salaries for those who could not work. And, voila, it worked.
I’m in France because I was farsighted enough to marry a French woman 30 years ago, who was farsighted enough to save our marriage license, which let me fly to France with her in early June to visit her elderly parents even as other Americans are barred. For two weeks, we kept to ourselves, speaking to my in-laws only across a garden. With an easy-to-get doctor’s prescription, we were also able to get tested for covid-19 at a parking lot drive-up with no wait and received (negative) results in two days (now down to one day for others).
France is not unique in seeing its service industry shut down in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But compared to other countries, France has a robust safety net of social security, unemployment, and healthcare. France has also implemented emergency measures that may prevent many of these businesses from going under.
As French restaurants begin to slowly reopen for outdoor service, the culinary landscape in France looks very different when compared to the United States.
Government Aid: Two Countries, Two Philosophies
In March, President Emmanuel Macron said he would do “whatever it takes” to ensure that no company, big or small, collapsed under the financial weight of the pandemic. He announced 300 billion euros in loan guarantees and tax exemptions. The government also played a role in negotiating rent forgiveness for restaurants.
Perhaps even more helpful, at least in the short-term, were easy-to-access “solidarity funds:” 1500 euros per month given tax-free to small businesses, compounded with an additional allowance of up to 2500 euros from URSSAF, a social security union for small businesses. On April 15, Gérald Darmainn, Minister of Public Action and Accounts, also announced that the restaurant industry’s taxes and social charges – about 750 million euros – would be forgiven instead of merely suspended for the duration of administrative closure.
In the U.S., by contrast, most small restaurants didn’t qualify for loans, while huge corporations like McDonald’s and Shake Shack did. According to the New York Times, big chains were able to access “tens of millions of dollars while many smaller restaurants walked away with nothing when the $349 billion fund was exhausted [April 16].” The Los Angeles Times reported that those small businesses that did qualify were reluctant to apply for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program because of the “strings” attached to loans.
Restaurant Workers Feed Us, But Can They Eat?
As far as restaurant employees are concerned, in France, most are secure within the net of the country’s robust social structure. When forced closures were announced mid-March, restaurant workers were encouraged to first use up their paid vacation (an average of about five weeks per year) before becoming eligible for partial unemployment (the equivalent of 84 percent of their salary.) Continue reading “Are French Restaurants More Likely than American to Survive the Lockdown?”→
Restaurant and cafe owners in Paris cheered their chance to get back to business Monday after the government said they could once again open their dining rooms, three months after being shut to blunt the coronavirus outbreak.
The sooner-than-expected reopening for the Paris region was announced by President Emmanuel Macron late Sunday, shortly before officials reported just nine COVID-19 deaths in the previous 24 hours — the lowest figure since March.
“The bulk of the epidemic is behind us,” Health Minister Olivier Veran said Monday, though he cautioned that “this doesn’t mean we can stop fighting the virus.”
Until now, restaurants in and around the capital could only serve clients on outdoor terraces, even as eateries in the rest of the country opened fully earlier this month.