In a city as boisterous as Marseille, a summer curfew can be considered something of an affront. Summer is when the Marseillais live outdoors. From May to September, a post-work apéro can easily stretch well into the night. And at the weekend anything goes. As the days became sunnier, France’s second city began to chafe under an early evening curfew that had been in place since October. But on Wednesday there was some respite, with the nightly national curfew moved from 9pm to 11pm.
The city centre squares where the Marseillais come to play – Cours d’Estienne d’Orves, Cours Julien and La Plaine – heaved with revellers delighted to be out beyond sunset. Around the Old Port of Marseille, happy crowds converged on bars, shisha cafes and restaurants. On the corniche, joggers took advantage of the cooler twilight air. The Maghreb-inflected rap for which the city is famous drifted from passing cars.
As the sun dipped below the Mediterranean, Vallon des Auffes, an old fishing harbour and much loved apéro spot, rang with the chatter of diners sipping Provençal rosé and restaurant owners grateful to see them again. “All the sounds of our old life returning,” said one resident. “You can feel the city starting to buzz again.”
At the Viaghji di Fonfon tapas bar, manager Jean-François Santiago darted between the tables perched along the water’s edge. “We’re fully booked tonight and over the weekend," hy het gesê, serving up plates of chickpea fritters known as panisse. “Our city is back.”
Later that night, Jonathan Luciani, manager of the nearby Chez Jeannot, an old school favourite known for its pizzas, compared the atmosphere to when Marseille emerged from its first Covid-19 lockdown last year. “It felt quite festive this evening but it was more reserved than last year," hy het gesê. “It’s as if people do not quite believe it’s happening after such a long period of curfew. People eat late in the south so the continuing 11pm curfew mean we are still losing customers, but it’s still a good start.”
Across the city, in the hardscrabble Quartiers Nord, filmgoers streamed out of the Alhambra cinema, a Marseille landmark dating back to the 1920s and a childhood haunt of film director Robert Guédiguian, whose gritty movies about his home town have won international acclaim. Several joined the queue for pastis at the outdoor bar across the street as a group of local musicians set up for an impromptu concert. “People treat this like an extension of their home during the summer,” said Alhambra director William Benedetto.
The arthouse Alhambra is known for engaging with local schools and youth from some of Marseille’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. “We’re looking forward to restarting our schools programming after the long shutdown,” said Benedetto. He noted that the cinema’s overall audience figures this month were higher than during the same period two years ago. “It’s clear that people want to experience a collective moment after months of being deprived of it.”
France’s night-time curfew is due to be lifted fully at the end of June, not a moment too soon for those in the restaurant business but also organisers of the festivals and concerts that usually fill the summer calendar in Marseille and wider Provence.
Jan Goossens, director of Festival de Marseille, is glad that this week’s 11pm extension comes just before it opens on 17 Junie. “We still have a few Covid-related obstacles to overcome, including visa issues, but on the whole the atmosphere is enthusiastic and determined," hy het gesê. “We have a festival with real artists and audiences coming together for live events. It’s the opposite of 2020, a blank year of cancellations and missed rendezvous.”
It has also been a difficult year for supporters of the local football club, Olympique de Marseille, who have been unable to cheer on their team since the pandemic began. With France’s vaccination programme gaining momentum, Olympique is considering reopening the stadium to the public. Good news in a city that lives and breathes football.