PARIS: French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire warned restaurant owners Monday they risked losing Covid-19 financial aid if they open in defiance of the pandemic shutdown, following protests and reports that some are secretly serving customers.
Angry owners say their livelihoods are at risk since the closures were ordered on October 30, with little prospect of a return to business as usual anytime soon.
Stephane Turillon, a chef in Cusance, eastern France, made good on his threat to open Monday in an act of "civil disobedience" that he hopes others will emulate.
"We want to start a discussion with the state, because you can't fight this pandemic by closing everything down," Turillon told AFP as he welcomed several dozen patrons in tents set up near his restaurant, "La Source Bleue."
"All I'm asking for is the right to work," he said.
In Villeurbanne, outside Lyon, a crowd of supporters cheered Philippe Vieira at his restaurant after he refrained from opening as planned to serve a protest meal.
Le Maire acknowledged that "it's extremely hard for restaurants, economically and in terms of morale."
"But in no way does that justify not respecting the rules," he told RTL radio.
- 'All the bills' -
On Saturday, police in Paris said they discovered 24 restaurants operating illicitly, and warned they would step up controls following reports of dozens of similar cases in recent weeks.
The Parisien newspaper reported Monday that a restaurant shut down on Friday was serving judges who worked at the nearby appeals court on the Ile de la Cite, opposite the Paris police headquarters.
Le Maire said owners caught serving clients would see their Covid solidarity funds suspended for a month, "and if they do it again, they won't get any more at all".
Restaurants and other businesses that have been forced to close during the health crisis can receive up to 10,000 euros ($12,000) a month, or compensation equal to 20 percent of their revenues from 2019, capped at 200,000 per month.
But many owners say that is not enough to make up for lost sales as they have to keep paying rent.
Last week, a restaurant owner in the Mediterranean city of Nice was detained for questioning after serving lunch to around 100 people.
Christophe Wilson's protest garnered a wave of support on social media, with the hashtag #LiberezChristophe (Free Christophe) trending on Twitter as messages expressed anger at his treatment and the dire financial straits of restaurants.
The government closed restaurants to limit social gatherings that could accelerate the virus's spread, hoping to avoid a third nationwide lockdown.
It has also ordered ski resorts to shut down their lifts, which sparked a protest Monday by around 100 seasonal workers who blocked a highway near Modane in the Alps.
"If I don't work during the season, I can't live," lift operator Sophie Gregoire told AFP. "I have a family, children, rent, a car -- all the bills that everyone has."