COVID-19 endangers France’s cherished lunch tradition

PARIS (AFP) – The coronavirus crisis has already taken a heavy toll on the French way of life and now it’s bringing unwanted change to the nation’s eating habits – by forcing workers to eat at their desks.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, triggering the closure of restaurants and cafes, a communal midday meal of several courses, perhaps with some drink, was still a feature in the professional life of millions.

At lunchtime every day across the country, restaurants in city centres would be filled to capacity in what seems a vision from a vanished era.

But now taking lunch alone seated at a desk in front of a computer, long looked down on with pity as the preserve of the hard-pressed “Anglosaxon” worker and until now officially illegal, has been adopted en masse by French employees.

“In other cultures, it’s a bit more everyone-for-themselves, but in France it’s a moment to eat together, to take time out as a group, among colleagues,” said Romain Passelande, who co-founded the Les Petites Tables website devoted to affordable lunching in Paris.

“Employees in a company, even if they work a lot, will take this moment together,” the 38-year-old said.

A woman walks past a closed restaurant in Paris amid a second lockdown in France aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. PHOTO: AFP

Eating in front of a computer screen was previously illegal under the gigantic French labour code, an annual red book of several thousand pages, which expressly forbade having lunch “in spaces used for work”.

While working from home is still strongly encouraged, at the start of the month the Employment Ministry announced it would issue a decree authorising eating in the workplace for the first time – recognition of the new reality for millions of white-collar and blue-collar workers.

Closed restaurants are not just depriving employees of a moment to relax and indulge in the national pastime of talking about food.

Shuttered brasseries might also be having an outsize effect on the internal dynamics of companies compared with other countries.

Lunch is traditionally the time to exchange office gossip, grumble about problems, or brainstorm ideas in an informal setting. It is also a useful time to chat to the boss.

This is all encouraged by the labour code, which obliges small companies to provide a separate space for employees to eat, while those with more than 50 employees must provide a work canteen or lunch vouchers.

“While for others taking lunch is a moment to eat, for the French lunching is about conversing over a meal and drinks,” said academic and political scientist Stephane Rozes who heads CAP, a consultancy firm.

“The French are struggling with COVID-19 in how it is limiting our small-talk about the weather and other things, but also work issues and the organisation of our companies,” he added.

Over lunch, “formal hierarchical relationships dissolve between subordinates and managers, and it encourages more horizontal conversations with people from other services”, he said.

Restaurants have been closed for in-person eating in France since late October when the country entered its second lockdown.

Most are surviving thanks to heavy state subsidies for loss of earnings and payroll costs, and also trying to earn a bit from take-out orders, which are permitted.

The government has given no firm indication of when the hard-hit hospitality sector will be allowed to re-open given the risks of transmission between unmasked eaters at a time when the country is battling to avoid a third lockdown.

The only type of restaurant still permitted to operate are the work canteens, which are now the scenes of often noisy conversations as colleagues yell at one another from their social-distanced chairs.

Passelande, whose website is at a standstill, believes that the new normal of eating in the office will disappear once life returns to the pre-COVID-19 era.

“I think people will go out more,” he said.

“We will have missed it so much, just like the cinema and exhibitions.

“For so many of the people I know, Paris is all about life in restaurants. All the good moments are spent around a glass or plate of something.”