PARIS – A French chef at the centre of a political storm over illegal clandestine dinner parties has defended cooking luxury meals for the Parisian elite, telling VICE World News the reaction has been “very excessive”.
Christophe Leroy, one of two alleged organisers of a series of luxury soirées in Paris that broke COVID restrictions and were exposed by undercover camera footage, said that “politicians and businessmen need to eat too – what do people expect?”
Leroy, who describes himself as a chef of “simple food that is easy to eat,” expressed dismay at the fact one client was recently forced to eat a sandwich on the street. “Why should they have to eat like that?” Leroy said in a phone interview. “These are esteemed people of the world. He thanked me for cooking real food for him.”
Undercover footage broadcast by the channel M6 this month revealed affluent diners without masks schmoozing at a private mansion and a luxury restaurant run by Leroy that charged up to €490 (about £425) for meals including champagne, foie gras and caviar.
“We don’t wear masks here,” a white-gloved waiter told an undercover reporter. “Once you pass through the doors, COVID no longer exists. We want guests to feel comfortable. It’s a private club and we want you to feel at home.”
The recordings also showed a private mansion with a luxurious, golden interior, where mask-free guests greet each other with French-style bisous kisses. At one point, the owner Pierre-Jean Chalençon is heard boasting, “This week I had dinner at two or three restaurants, so-called clandestine restaurants, with a certain number of ministers ... We’re still a democracy, we do what we want.”
In the context of seemingly never-ending lockdowns, widespread public mourning and stewing resentment towards French elitism, the report has led to an explosion of outrage. Hashtags like #OnVeutLesNoms (We Want The Names), #OnVeutLesDemissions (We Want Resignations), and #MangeonsLesRiches (Let’s Eat the Rich), were tweeted hundreds of thousands of times.
The latest bitter controversy over inequality and privilege in French society comes as France is in the midst of a third national coronavirus lockdown – meaning schools and nonessential businesses are closed, regional travel is banned and a daily 7PM curfew is in place – and on Thursday the country’s COVID death toll surpassed 100,000.
A number of leading government figures spoke out in response as pressure ramped up on whether ministers were involved. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin declared that “in the most beautiful neighbourhoods of the capital, the rule is the same for everyone. There are not two types of citizens with those who have the right to party and those who would not have the right.”
Chalençon and Leroy were questioned by investigators from the Paris prosecutor’s office. Searches took place at the Palais Vivienne, owned by Chalençon, and at the Parisian home of Leroy.
No proof has emerged that any minister has attended an illegal gathering, but former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux on Sunday admitted to having a “professional lunch” in a separate event held by Leroy. “I was guaranteed that it was legal, in an isolated room of an apartment,” the MEP for the conservative Les Républicains party told AFP. “It is a private apartment and not a restaurant, it was presented to me as a business club.”
Leroy remains unapologetic about these privileged ways of life. Instead he raised concerns about so-called cancel culture emerging in French society and said that his communications interns had all stopped working for him in the aftermath of the debacle, some of them apparently unwillingly. “Some of their universities made them quit,” he said. “We must be very aware of what’s happening in the world today. I’ve had worse and I can survive. But I’m afraid we’re throwing [people’s lives away].”
For many, the lavish events have proved particularly difficult to swallow as the number of starving university students across France forced to use food banks has spiked during the pandemic.
“When people see queues like that, and on the other hand they see people in golden palaces, protected by the powerful, I’m sorry but that creates a feeling a black anger, which is justified,” Antoine Léaument, a spokesperson for the left-wing party La France Insoumise, told the channel BFMTV. “It’s not a fantasy, it’s not an anti-elite idea and it’s not demagoguery, it’s the reality of class struggle in our country.”
Authorities told VICE World News that they have been forced to respond to these increasing levels of clandestine dining. A spokesperson for the Prefecture of Police in Paris said that 300 to 400 establishments, such as restaurants, cafes and bars, are now being searched and checked by officers every day on average.
Since November, 698 establishments in Paris and its inner suburbs have been put into administrative closure for breaches of coronavirus protocols, the spokesperson added, and a number of owners have been arrested.
Stanislas Gaudon, delegate of the Alliance Police Nationale union, told VICE World News, that police officers were patrolling the streets of the capital several times a week and in certain strategic places to track down illegal diners. Local residents who file complaints for noise at night regularly lead to police checks, he added.
“There’s been a rise in delinquance, including illegal parties and dinners,” said Gaudon. “Elites and those in Parisian high society are definitely involved, even if it’s not only them who are doing it. But we can’t hunt them everywhere, especially when these events are held at private venues.”
Protocol breaches by the French government have not been in short supply during the pandemic. A video showing suited officials dancing in the offices of the Ministry of Higher Education without masks or social distancing on a Friday night was also posted on social media this month.
Adding to the sour taste, the ministry’s response was bullish. “We fall into something dangerous and harmful, in a society of denouncing when people film in the windows of cabinet officials who work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, observing the daily life of a ministry and waiting the slightest misstep,” a spokesperson told the magazine L’Obs.
Last month the French culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, was also photographed posing with unmasked opera singers at a closed performance in Paris shortly before testing positive for coronavirus.
William Genieys, a researcher at Sciences-Po Paris an expert on French political elites, says the events have “reignited an anti-elite feeling” that reached a peak during the gilets jaunes protests, which began in October 2018 in reaction to high fuel prices but morphed into a wider struggle against social inequality.
“There’s a feeling that the elites live in a world of their own with different rules from the rest of society,” he says. “This has been growing for the last two decades, particularly because of France’s very centralised political system, which has created more extreme views on the left and right of politics.”
Some research has given credence to the idea that France’s elite, possessing better healthcare and means to spend despite the economic crisis, are living life as normal with little regard for others.
A study published in March by France’s Directorate for Research, Studies, Evaluation and Statistics found that the richest 10% of French people were twice as likely to have contracted COVID than those in the middle class.