The longstanding antagonism that pits Paris, the occasionally overbearing French capital, against Marseille, its sunnier, more rambunctious rival on the Mediterranean coast, has found a new battleground: the coronavirus.
Politicians and businesses in Marseille and its neighbor, Aix-en-Provence, are furious since the government ordered all bars, cafes and restaurants in those two cities — and nowhere else in mainland France — closed for 15 days starting on Sunday evening, to counter rising Covid-19 hospitalizations in the region.
“It’s a catastrophe, we are all anticipating permanent closures,” said Laurent Ceccarini, the owner of two restaurants, both a short walk from the Old Port in Marseille.
In the center of Marseille, a city of over 800,000 residents, French television on Monday showed some shuttered cafes and others that had briefly flouted the restrictions — until patrolling police officers calmly but sternly asked coffee-sipping customers to leave the sun-drenched terraces.
National authorities and some local health officials say the closures are a painful but necessary brake to prevent hospitals in both cities from being overwhelmed.
But some opponents of the targeted shutdown say it was imposed, with little warning, by vindictive government officials who want to punish Marseille’s rebel streak, which in recent months has coalesced around the figure of Didier Raoult, an eminent microbiologist from the city. His contrarian stance — including a claim, rejected by other scientists, that common drugs can cure Covid-19 — has endeared him to Marseille and its political class.
Officials are mounting protests and legal challenges against the new measures. One even said that the municipal police, ignoring government instructions, would not issue fines for establishments that broke the rules.