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France's cafes opened through the war, but not the coronavirus

Stock MarketsMar 15, 2020 07:56AM ET
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By Geert De Clercq and Matthias Blamont

PARIS (Reuters) - The Cafe de Flore, once the drinking hole of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Brasserie Lipp continued serving customers during World War Two. But on Sunday they locked their doors until further notice, as France upped its fight against the coronavirus.

"At least during World War Two we knew what we were up against. Now we have no idea," said the Brasserie Lipp's head waiter, who used to listen to tales of German occupation recounted by colleagues at the 140-year-old Left Bank eatery.

Across the strangely quiet boutique-lined Boulevard Saint-Germain, Sophie Chardonnet watched an employee at the Cafe de Flore swung off his motorbike to collect his belongings before beginning a two-week period of temporary unemployment.

Similar scenes of shuttered cafes, quiet streets and empty stores played out across the French capital after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced restrictions on French public life unprecedented in living memory.

Restaurants, cafes, bars and cinemas would be closed indefinitely from Sunday, Philippe said. So too would libraries, shopping malls, and sports halls -- any venue deemed non-essential. Food stores and gas stations would remain open.

"It's sad to see these cafe's closed, let's hope it won't be for too long," Chardonnet said. "I won't complain, however, it is for our own good."

The coronavirus has sickened some 4,500 people and killed 91 in France, which followed neighboring Italy and Spain and other European nations in enforcing the severe measures.

In Paris' central Marais area, home to the Jewish quarter, brands from U.S.-based Michael Kors to France’s Sessun had mounted signs telling customers to shop online.

Catherine Perochon, whose falafel restaurant Chez Marianne serves a 1,000 dishes on a typical Sunday, was doing clearing up with staff, getting rid of perishables and switching off the gas, anticipating she would be shut for at least a month.

"It was so last minute," she said of the prime minister's notice.

"SPECIAL TIMES"

Others took a more defiant stand, at least while they could.

In the upscale 16th arrondissement, some food and flower stall owners at a market in the Passy neighborhood made a spirited last stand.

"It's just hard to throw all the merchandise away," said florist Laurent Binder, 41. "Some people are angry at us but others are coming in and making last minute purchases."

Nearby, police pressed another stall owner to close within the hour.

Queues formed outside butchers and bakers, with scant heed paid to the government's plea to people to stand one meter apart to minimize the risk of contagion.

But in the most visited city in the world, tourists were in small numbers.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced the closure of the Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge cabaret bar.

On the Champs Elysees, usually thronged with tourists, there were fewer pedestrians than usual, though a steady stream of visitors took selfies in front of the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the boulevard.

On the Trocadero esplanade facing the Eiffel Tower, unlicensed souvenir vendors tried to flog their wares to the small number of foreigners present.

"What can you do? These are special times,” said 26-year-old U.S. tourist Laura. "I came from Belgium a week ago and was planning to go to Italy next. Good bye to that."

France's cafes opened through the war, but not the coronavirus
 

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