Let the party begin? French nightclubs are finally reopening – but with strict Covid-19 measures


French nightclubs were allowed to reopen this weekend for the first time since they were closed more than a year ago due to Covid-19. But between restrictive new health protocols and a shortage of workers, many clubs remain mired in uncertainty.

It’s 10pm and Alimentation Générale, a nightclub in the east of Paris, has just opened its doors. No one has arrived yet and the dance floor unfortunately looks empty, the house lights up too brightly.

Farid, who has worked at the nightclub for 17 years, sits at the bar with an open Corona in front of him. He hasn’t spent a Saturday night here in nearly 16 months since the French government announced the closure of nightclubs, bars and restaurants on March 14, 2020. “We’re a bit rusty,” he laughs.

This weekend may be the grand reopening, but the industry is still facing restrictions. Indoor locations are only allowed to open at 75% of their normal capacity and can only accept people with a valid “health passport” – a QR code or certificate showing that the holder has recently recovered from Covid-19, has been fully vaccinated or has had the past 48 hours had a negative Covid-19 test.

Emilie, 29, and her group of friends are the first to arrive, and as the lights dim, the music gets louder. “We are so excited!” she beams and stands in line to have her health certificate scanned. Only one in five people between the ages of 18 and 29 in France has been fully vaccinated. She says the new rules made preparing to go out “chaotic” as she and her friends had to organize Covid-19 tests in advance.

This is one of the biggest fears for many establishments.

“It means the public really needs to plan before it goes out – but there’s so much uncertainty about that. Did we do the right test? Do our health certificates work? Are we being turned away because the room is already 75% occupied? People won’t bother; instead they just go to bars,” says nightclub manager Frantz Steinbach, who also co-chairs a government committee on the nightlife and music industry.

Only one of its 12 clubs in France will open this weekend. “There is too much financial uncertainty,” he explains. “It’s just too risky and actually costs less to stay closed.”

Only 1 in 5 nightclubs to open

He is far from alone in this decision. Trade associations say only 20% of French nightclubs have decided to reopen.

All nightclubs in the city of Rennes in western France plan to remain closed, writing in an online statement that vaccination coverage among their target audience is still largely “inadequate”.

A collective of nightclubs in the southwestern city of Biarritz called the government’s permission to reopen a “poisoned chalice”, saying the health regulations were giving clubs “headaches”.

In Marseille, nightclub The Trolleybus welcomed revelers on Friday night, but the new protocol caused complications.

“We actually lost a lot of customers because there were some who didn’t have their health passport, others who refused to take a test, and dealing with that slowed down the queue, so some people left because they didn’t wait. I’m not a doctor so I don’t know what needs to be done in the long run, but I can tell you that over the course of an evening it’s extremely restrictive and just doesn’t work,” Florent Provansal, the club’s manager, told FRANCE 24.

Reopened – but no workers

Despite that first night’s problems and the capacity reduction — which Provansal said will immediately “wipe out a quarter of our revenue” — his team was delighted to be back at work.

“It’s not just about the financial side. Without work we are not ourselves. Psychologically, we needed this,” he says. “Last year we all lost our jobs overnight. Now that the government finally says we can open, we just have to carry on.”

Other locations struggled to find the workers needed to reopen. Just like in the tourism, hotel and restaurant sector, the entertainment industry is faced with a severe labor shortage.

Renaud Barillet is co-founder of event and entertainment company Cultplace, which manages eight cultural spaces across France. While Parisian club and concert venue La Bellevilloise managed to retain staff, Barillet says it was a “catastrophe” for their La Fabuleuse Cantine location in La Rochelle, which relies mainly on seasonal workers.

“The staff did not wait for us despite so much uncertainty. They have to make money. There were a lot of people who retrained to work in different industries,” he says. Unions say that half of the workforce in the sector has found a job elsewhere.

The government’s timing to ease restrictions has also had a significant impact on clubs’ decisions to open or not. July and August typically represent the industry’s slow season as residents leave cities for the summer holidays.

The government has said it will continue to financially support clubs that choose to remain closed, at least until the end of the summer.

But the months of closure have taken their toll on the sector: of the roughly 1,600 nightclubs in France, at least 200 have closed for good, while some 200 others are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Financial support to the sector included partial unemployment for workers; help cover fixed costs such as rent, water and electricity bills; and access to state-supported loans. Despite this, Barillet says its locations have lost 80% of their revenue in the past 16 months.

“State help stopped the industry from bleeding money, but it didn’t undo the 2020 loss,” he says. With the industry still so fragile, he says it would be “suicidal” to take out a loan.

Farid of Alimentation Générale, however, says the company only survived thanks to a loan, which allowed them to pay off outstanding bills and arrears.

He shrugs, resigned to an inevitable drop in earnings. “We have to accept it. We’re not going to make money like before, but we want to be here. It’s even worse to be closed.”

As Emilie and her friends flood the dance floor, he smiles and says, “It’s good to be back. We want to make people happy again.”