Enforcing égalité under lockdown: French businesses and Covid-19
Image by Katie Child

When President Macron announced France’s reconfinement back on 28th October, the collective inward (and outward) groans of the French population were more than audible. Among the loudest expressing their opposition to the new measures were shopkeepers and other business owners.

After once again being ruthlessly divided into ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ categories, many of France’s businesses have been forced to close their doors until at least 1st December. Consequently, the long-running debate over the fairness of this categorising system and its implications on the future of the French economy has been reignited. In a country whose national motto vouches for égalité (equality), the question of equal treatment in the economic sphere has become more important than ever.

As in many other countries across the globe, in March the government released a list of establishments which would be allowed to stay open on the basis that their services were deemed ‘essential’. This same list has formed the foundations for the new reconfinement regulations. Restaurants and bars must close (although they are still permitted to offer takeaway services), whilst supermarkets and food-specialist shops remain open. There is a small difference in that, this time, food markets can still operate.

Although the list of ‘essential’ establishments is largely the same as before, during this second lockdown there is an increased sense of anxiety regarding what the new wave of temporary closures will mean for the economy. When the reconfinement was announced the French economy had only just bounced back from the first lockdown, with GDP growing by 18.2% in the third quarter to regain some of the 19.7% reduction from the first and second quarters combined.

The prospect of another economic pause has been unbearable for many, especially ‘non-essential’ business owners who feel that they barely managed to survive the first period of closure. Thus, this time there is even greater pressure on the French government to find solutions to limit economic contraction.

Though not unprecedented, one of French Prime Minister Jean Castex and President Macron’s first actions of the second lockdown was to announce a new scheme of government aid for businesses forced to shut under the new regulations. These provisions are more generous than those in place during the spring. In theory, businesses which are currently closed because of the reconfinement will be able to recuperate up to 10,000 euros of their losses in government aid.

During his speech, Macron also briefly mentioned a “special plan” for small to medium-sized independent businesses, but further details are yet to be released. Although these proposed measures are encouraging, many independent business owners are unconvinced by their potential to level the playing field with competitors who are allowed to remain open.

One of the key protests of independent business owners against the lockdown measures, both in March and October, was that their closure would give an unfair advantage to large supermarkets and online stores. In response to these concerns, Castex announced that from 3rd November all supermarkets over a certain size should cease to sell ‘non-essential’ items. This move echoes the actions of other European governments, notably in Wales, where supermarket aisles displaying products such as clothes and toys were cordoned off for 17 days from 23rd October. Castex cited “fairness” as his motivation for what he admitted might be seen by some as a radical move.

Although the sight of shelves covered in tape and black plastic might appease some members of the public, Castex’s policy has come under heavy criticism. The Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution (FCD, an organisation which represents some of France’s biggest supermarkets) has argued that the new measures will serve only to damage suppliers’ incomes.

The FCD stressed this would cause inconvenience to the consumer, without achieving the intended purpose of helping small businesses. There are particular concerns over the sale of Christmas stock, as many suppliers who normally rely on supermarket sales foresee significant losses this year as a result of the new government measures. The FCD’s spokesperson has said that ministers have only succeeded in creating a “lose-lose” situation for small business owners and large supermarkets alike.

The policy of preventing supermarkets from selling ‘non-essential’ items is likely to accelerate the already active shift from in-store to online purchasing. Michel-Édouard Leclerc, president of the hypermarket chain E. Leclerc, credited Castex as being “the best Amazon employee in the whole of France” for his decision to ban the sale of certain items in supermarkets. Leclerc believes that the only way to escape economic ruin is to open up all businesses as soon as possible, with the most effective sanitary measures in place.

Even a policy created with the intention of improving equality in the commercial arena is not guaranteed to benefit those whom Castex’s government is aiming to help.

This issue of perceived inequality – between small shops and supermarkets, between businesses which have the resources to operate online and those which do not – has caused ruptures within the political system itself. Just days after Macron’s speech (and, crucially, before Castex’s announcement about ‘non-essential’ items in supermarkets), the mayors of several key French towns chose to take matters into their own hands. Overtly defying the government, they issued mayoral decrees giving small businesses permission to remain open during lockdown.

Louis Aliot, mayor of Perpignan, declared that it was simply “not acceptable” for shops with a low client footfall and the capacity to effectively enforce social distancing measures to be forced to close whilst huge supermarkets were allowed to continue selling the same products. His sentiments were echoed in several other municipalities. The mayor of Dijon issued a decree allowing independent bookshops to continue welcoming customers, despite the fact that under the government’s regulations they are classed as ‘non-essential’.

During this Rebellion of Mayors, key political figures portrayed themselves as the heroes of the small town-centre businesses, and thus, as champions of equality. These decrees have since been overturned by more senior regional courts. But their significance in highlighting the pertinence of equal treatment even under lockdown regulations remains.

It is also significant that these events occurred almost immediately after the reconfinement announcement. On the surface, the policies of reconfinement might be very similar to the first lockdown. But there is a sense – within the commercial community in particular – that there is more at stake this time than there was back in March.

During his speech on 28th October, Macron acknowledged many business owners’ unwillingness to close their doors once again, but urged a strong effort on all sides to respect the measures. As motivation, he cited the possibility of reopening some ‘non-essential’ businesses after a two-week period if the situation improved. Castex’s confirmation on 13th November that measures would remain unchanged for the next 15 days confirmed what many had been expecting.

The sentiment that they have been dealt a disproportionately damaging blow during both lockdowns is still widespread among many independent business owners. In spite of the government’s efforts to level the playing field with supermarkets and online giants, many are still pessimistic about their future. In his announcement confirming the continuation of lockdown measures, Castex alluded to the possibility of a general reopening from 1st December, provided that the infection rates are more favourable. But whether or not this reopening will materialise remains to be seen.