South of France sees fortunes decline as COVID-19 keeps foreign tourists away

In the south of France, tourism accounts for 13 per cent of the region's economy, but much of that will be lost this year due to the pandemic. As the industry struggles, the big business of harvesting fruit from the fields continues — often on the backs of foreign workers, many from South America.

Pandemic has also exposed possible exploitation of workers from poorer countries

Empty deckchairs are aligned on a private beach in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, in the south of France, on July 7. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the tourism industry in the southern Provence Côte d'Azur region, even though the number of cases has been relatively small. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Summer in the south of France. The sun is shining, the cicadas are sawing their song of love, men and women are bent over in the fields picking fruit and preparing vines, middle-aged cyclists in gaudy spandex costumes covering lumpy bodies labour up and down hills and dream of the Tour de France, the world's most famous and gruelling professional bicycle race.

But there was no Tour de France this July. It might take place starting at the end of August.

Instead, on July 20, the day after the Tour was supposed to finish, the French were ordered to wear masks in shops and offices and in any indoor public space. Someone caught by police not wearing a mask will be fined the equivalent of $200 Cdn.

COVID-19 has comparatively lightly brushed the départements of the south. While Paris remained a government-declared "red" zone until the beginning of June, the south had been "green" for weeks. It still is, despite a slight rise in cases.

There have been around 220,000 cases of COVID-19 and just over 30,000 deaths in France. In the southern Provence Côte d'Azur region, with five million residents, there have been fewer than 1,500 cases and 12 deaths in July.

But the economic impact of the novel coronavirus has been devastating.

Chairs are stacked on the terrace of a closed restaurant in Nice, in the south of France, in March as the country closed most non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

For weeks the region's beaches, towns and cafés were eerily quiet. The virus has exposed its vulnerability when tourism dries up.

Last year, the Côte d'Azur region boasted of receiving 20 million tourists, half of them foreigners. This winter and spring, the visitors disappeared, hotels were shuttered, beaches were empty and the Cannes Film festival was cancelled along with the Monaco Formula 1 race.

That amounted to a loss of $1.95 billion to the region, according to Claire Behar, director of the Côte d'Azur tourism committee.

"We've had tough moments in the past," said Rudy Salles, the deputy mayor of Nice, including a terror attack by a man driving a truck into a Bastille Day crowd on July 14, 2016, that killed 86 people.

"The difference now is the lack of visibility in which to launch a tourism comeback plan.

Foreign workers vulnerable to virus

While officials worry about lost tourists and lost revenue, work goes on in the fruit fields. But the virus has also exposed the potentially illegal exploitation of foreign workers — many from South America — brought to France each year to pick fruit and tend wine-producing vines.

Their situation became front-page local news when a cluster of 258 workers living in a camp near the city of Arles tested positive for COVID-19 in June. None died, but all were quarantined without work for weeks.

Seasonal workers in Saint Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu, near Nantes, on April 14, the 29th day of a lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. A cluster of 258 foreign workers living in a camp near the city of Arles tested positive for the disease in June. None died, but all were quarantined without work for weeks. (Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images)

Then it turned out that French magistrates were investigating the Spanish company, Terra Fecundis, that hired them and brought them to France. It faces charges of fraud and exploitation of a vulnerable workforce.

This is big business. There are several such companies, but Terra Fecundis is the biggest. It had annual revenue of $90 million in 2018 and more than 6,700 workers. It buses them — many from Ecuador, El Salvador and Colombia, but all living in Spain with immigrant status — to France to work for more than 50 agricultural concerns. Most workers speak no French.

In the village down the road from our house, a bus from another company pulls up at noon each day, and half a dozen exhausted and sweaty Ecuadoran workers climb out. They will be picked up later from rented rooms to work the afternoon shift in the fields.

The European Union's technical term for them is "posted workers." The EU allows men and women from poorer countries such as Bulgaria to Spain to be posted temporarily in richer countries like France, which need cheap labour.

According to a thick file drawn up by French police and prosecutors in Marseille, Terra Fecundis has systematically abused the system for years. Although it is based in Spain, 99 per cent of its revenue comes from France.

Because employer medicare, pension and unemployment contributions are lower in Spain than in France, it makes money on the state minimum wage (approximately $15 an hour) it collects in France for each worker. The pay is low but more than the South Americans would get in Spain.

Company that hires workers faces charges

Prosecutors allege the company has also cheated its workers out of some of their wages, not paid overtime hours and falsified worksheets to further cheat them.

Terra Fecundis also houses its workers. Conditions in some of these camps are said to be atrocious. One was baptized by its inmates "el Carcel — the prison."

"I was treated like a dog," one Ecuadoran worker there told the police. "We had no blanket, no mattress. We had to sleep on the floor in the dining area."

Moroccan seasonal agricultural workers Hassan, right, and Mohamed wear protective face masks inside a greenhouse in Noves, in southeastern France, in June. (Clement Mahoudeau/AFP via Getty Images)

El Carcel was closed by French police at the end of 2017, but the abusive conditions continued. One investigator described conditions for the workers as "equivalent to human trafficking."

The company has been charged with massive fraud — more than $150 million over several years — and brutal exploitation of its workforce. The trial was scheduled for May, but COVID-19 shut down the courts. It may take place in the fall.

What is notable is that none of the French agricultural operations where the South Americans work have ever voiced public concern about their conditions. It is akin to a conspiracy of silence.

So work in the fields goes on while the trial awaits.

Full beaches raise COVID-19 concerns

And the beaches of the Mediterranean are filling up. Those frolicking in the waves are almost all French, released from confinement but reluctant to go abroad.

There are so many already that the French authorities, seeing the incidence of COVID-19 beginning to rise again slowly across the country, worry about the lack of physical distancing.

Beaches in the south of France are filling up again, like this one earlier this month, raising concerns among health officials about the lack of physical distancing. Cases of COVID-19 are beginning to slowly rise again across the country. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

"This is the unbearable lightness of the crowd," one angry doctor on the coast sniffed anonymously to the newspaper Le Monde.

Hotels bewail the fact that the French are much more frugal than foreign visitors. They spend half of what Germans do and less than a third of the real big spenders — Russians, Americans and people from the Middle East.

None of those big spenders will be seen this summer.

So luxury hotels like Hôtel Belles Rives in Antibes are scrambling.

"We must try to come up with new ways of doing things," director Stéphane Vuillaume told the public television channel France 3. "We've got to start selling takeout meals to clients."

And also do the unthinkable: lower room prices.

Tourism accounts for 13 per cent of the region's economy. Much of that will be lost this year. Cafés will close for good. More than 15 per cent of cafés in the country will die, according to the French association of cafés and restaurants.

And fear will keep people away.

Luxury hotels line the beachfront of Cannes on the French Riviera, home of the prestigious film festival. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping foreign visitors away, hotels in the south of France are scrambling. (Reuters)

"We get calls all the time with questions like: 'Can you guarantee that this hotel or that campsite follows all the virus rules?'" Jerome Arnaud, a tourism office director in the south, said.

"We tell them our professionals are good, but we can't guarantee everything. This year is basically impossible."

The cicadas are still singing. The humans in the tourism industry are not.

In the south of France, this will be known as the lost year.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.