Small French Retailers Decry Closures During Lockdown

PARIS — It’s David versus Goliath in the time of the coronavirus.

That’s the view of small retailers in France, many of which, considered “non-essential” by the French government, have been forced to shutter during the new lockdown that began last Thursday at midnight. Meanwhile, their competitors, including e-tailers, big-box retailers and grocery stores, selling the same goods, have been allowed to remain operational during the key trading period before the end-of-year holidays.

This has created a polemic that’s crescendoed over the past few days, while elected officials in some French cities have been trying to circumvent the rules by passing decrees to allow independent shops to remain open.

The French government on Oct. 28 said that restaurants, cafés and shops not selling essential items would remain closed starting Oct. 30 for at least the next two weeks. After that time, it will revisit whether rules might be loosened, depending on how the COVID-19 situation evolves.

Small clothing store and salon owners have been vocal about wanting to reopen. On Saturday, CCI France and Le Conseil du Commerce de France, two French business organizations, jointly published a statement calling on local authorities to immediately authorize all shops to open by appointment.

Other small retailers suggested they could allow fewer people into their stores, among other ideas.

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On Sunday afternoon it was announced that France’s prime minister Jean Castex would discuss the retail situation during an interview on TV channel TF1 in the evening, causing speculation to run rife about what he might reveal.

During the interview, however, Castex said he’d met with industry leaders during the day, but, “We will not go back on the announced measures.”

However, the one allowance made was that starting on Tuesday, non-food departments would have to be closed in supermarkets, which remain open.

Earlier on Sunday, 10 chains had written to Castex saying such a decision would be incomprehensible and technically difficult to put in place.

France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire, during an interview on BFM TV on Sunday, had said arbitration must “restore fairness” with small businesses closed because of the confinement.

On Friday, in light of shuttered independent booksellers’ ire, the government revealed the closure of the book and culture sections in big-box stores, such as Fnac Darty, which remain operational.

E-tailers have been in the spotlight, too. On Saturday, during an interview on the Europe 1 TV channel, France’s Junior Economy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said the government had reached out to Amazon.

“I asked Amazon to suspend its pre-Black Friday campaign because it is not at all appropriate at a moment when 200,000 shopkeepers must close their doors,” she said, referring to a campaign that was meant to run Oct. 26 to Nov. 19, adding Amazon management agreed to withdraw the operation.

When asked about whether Black Friday, which takes place in France in sync with that in the U.S., would go ahead, Pannier-Runacher said it remains to be seen, that it’s a subject to be broached with all retailers.

E-tailers and grocery store chains, including Amazon, Rakuten, Shopify, Auchan and Monoprix, are reportedly open to help brick-and-mortar retailers suffering from the new lockdown by offering access to their marketplaces and other services.

The French government unveiled a new 20-billion-euro stimulus package ahead of the second nationwide lockdown. As a part of that, businesses the most impacted by the new confinement will receive 10,000 euros a month. Companies unable to pay rent can obtain waivers, and small- and medium-sized firms would receive additional funding help.

France’s first lockdown lasted two months, in March and April.

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