[PARIS] A report by a French television channel alleging "clandestine" luxury dinners in Paris despite the pandemic has sparked an investigation and public furore over claims the nation's political elite were brazenly ignoring rules they themselves had set.
The M6 private channel on Friday broadcast a reportage based on footage recorded with a hidden camera purportedly from a clandestine restaurant in a high-end area of Paris where neither the staff nor the diners were wearing masks.
All restaurants and cafes have been closed in France for eating in for the last five months. The country this week began a new limited nationwide lockdown to deal with surging Covid-19 infections.
The hashtag #OnVeutLesNoms (We Want the Names) went viral on Twitter, as speculation swirled over who may have attended such dinners.
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said Sunday that a criminal probe had been opened into putting the lives of others at risk.
The investigation would assess "if these evenings were organised in defiance of health rules and to determine who were the possible organisers and participants." The report showed staff at the venue proposing an evening menu from 160 euros (S$253) per head but said that the most expensive option went for 490 euros (S$775), including a bottle of champagne.
Removing the face mask was not just possible but obligatory, it said.
"We don't wear a mask here. Once you pass through the doors, Covid no longer exists. We want people to feel at ease," a staff member told the undercover team.
One source interviewed by M6, whose identity was not revealed and whose voice was distorted, told the channel that such evenings had taken place and guests present had even included ministers.
The source was later identified by media and bloggers as Pierre-Jean Chalencon, who runs the luxury Palais Vivienne event venue in the centre of Paris.
In statement sent to AFP through his lawyer late Sunday, Mr Chalencon implicitly acknowledged he was the source but also appeared to retract the claim ministers were involved, saying he was only showing "humour" and the "sense of the absurd".
He added by phone that there had been "no kitchen since December 2" at the Palais Vivienne.
M6 later broadcast its full interview identifying Mr Chalencon as the source and without distorting his voice, noting that his tone had been "far from humorous".
"We are still in a democracy, we can do what we like," he said.
The report was no laughing matter for members of the government, days after President Emmanuel Macron ordered new restrictions including a brief closure of schools to keep cases down before the effects of the vaccine drive kick in.
Mt Chalencon had been recorded saying in February that government spokesman Gabriel Attal, a rising cabinet star, would be attending such a dinner. Mr Attal vehemently denied the claim.
But deputy interior minister Marlene Schiappa told French TV that if ministers or lawmakers were involved "they should be fined and penalised like any other citizen".
Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire insisted: "All the ministers, without exception, respect the rules." Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said those involved in such dinners should be prosecuted if the allegations in the report were true.
"There are not two types of citizens - those who have the right to party and those who do not," he said.
Insinuations that politicians and officials have not followed the very restriction measures they themselves set have proved hugely damaging to governments across Europe throughout the pandemic.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year came under immense pressure after allegations his former top aide Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules by travelling across the country while displaying Covid-19 symptoms.