'Ruining our lives': Covid terraces pit Paris bars against neighbours

Paris (AFP) –


Paris bars and restaurants got a rare reason to cheer this summer when the city allowed them to expand outdoor seating into the street to recapture clientele lost to coronavirus restrictions.

Soon tables and chairs were spilling out onto pavements and parking spots with customers flocking to the makeshift terraces and loving the long balmy evenings after months of lockdown.

But nobody thought to ask the neighbours.

"It's ruining our lives," says Elodie, a psychologist who lives on a pedestrian strip of Rue Montmartre, in the heart of the capital.

In theory, bar owners have to shut down the "Covid terraces" at 10 pm to spare neighbours from noisy street parties.

In practice, around 8,000 pop-up patios have sprouted on sidewalks and parking spots across the city, often accompanied by music for boisterous patrons who stay well past midnight.

- 'No man's land' -

City officials say it's just a question of a few bad apples, but in August they nonetheless promised to step up controls and tripled the fine for noise violations to 500 euros ($590).

"For two months we've called the police, city hall, but nothing changes. It's become a no man's land," said Elodie, who like other residents asked to have her last name withheld amid escalating tensions.

She and others fed up with fighting recalcitrant bar owners formed a collective on Twitter, urging people to denounce abuses and plotting them on an interactive map.

The account has been flooded with photos and videos by residents, some wielding decibel readers, others saying they have to push through crowds just to reach their front door.

In some cases dozens of tables are spread half a block down the street -- far exceeding the original number of tables inside.

"Here for example, they went from eight tables to more than 30, so instead of 20 or 25 people outside you have 150 or 200," Elodie said during a nocturnal tour of her neighbourhood.

"The lady who lives above me, on the first floor, just left and went to her country house in Normandy because of the noise," said Yves, a cheesemonger on the picturesque Rue des Martyrs.

And few residents expect a return to calm anytime soon, despite the cooler autumn weather and the new closure of all Paris bars from 10 pm to fight to the coronavirus outbreak.

After weeks of campaigning, around 40 neighbourhood associations and other anti-noise groups secured a meeting with city hall officials Monday.

- 'Need to sleep!' -

Franck Trouet, a spokesman for the national GNI association of cafes and restaurants, acknowledged "some tensions" caused by the Covid terraces -- which Mayor Anne Hidalgo has said will be allowed to remain until next June.

"But they're also a ray of sunshine for people, and lifts up morale in these difficult times," he told AFP.

Yet judging from recent tours of several Paris neighbourhoods, few bars are keen to start turning out patrons at the stroke of 10.

More seem to share the attitude of the Alma, a restaurant and bar that posted on Instagram a video of a man gleefully smashing the city's official "respect the neighbours" sign in half.

"If you live on a busy street, you kind of have to accept that there will be noise," said Louis Supau, a sales representative with his friends on the Rue Montmartre, under a banner reading "Need to Sleep!" hung up by a fed-up resident.

"I understand perfectly that closing times should be respected... but during the Covid crisis I think they should be a little more tolerant about the noise," said Natasha Fina, a graphic designer, a few blocks away on the Rue Poissoniere.

- 'We respect the rule' -

Most bar owners say they are trying their best.

"We respect the rule, because we want to get along with the neighbours," said Thibault Wagner, manager at the Bistrot Argentin, which can now seat around 80 people on the street outside.

But he acknowledged "some problems with three or four people," while gradually stacking up chairs on a recent weeknight, while other patrons lingered as 10 pm rolled around.

"We also want bars and restaurants. We're young, we like going out too and enjoying life," said Elodie.

"But everyone needs to play by the rules -- we accept them, but the bars have to respect them."