With the corona virus crisis, the McDonald’s of Saint-Barthélémy, a district of Marseille – which has been definitively closed since December – has been requisitioned by its workers to centralise food aid for the most destitute.
”There was a failure to help people in danger,” (reference to the ”Duty to rescue” in French law) says Salim Grabsi, a militant from the Marseille working-class districts union, who was behind this initiative along with several other citizens groups. Grabsi is in charge of a laboratory at the Lycée Diderot and a resident of this working-class neighbourhood in the north of the city. He followed the struggle of the restaurant’s employees to save their jobs until the McDonalds was liquidated under court supervision on December 12th 2019. With former employees, including Kamel Guemari, the trade unionist behind the widely publicised fight of the “McDo de Saint-Barth”, he had the idea of temporarily converting the site to help “those who are dying of hunger” : “The Covid virus makes this misery obvious,” he explained on Friday, on the spot. Casual employment and modest jobs disappeared, and for those affected, there is no short-time working.
The workers of the Saint-Barthélémy McDonalds have been on strike since 2018 to avoid the closure of the restaurant and the layoff of its 77 workers. Apart from the workers themselves, this restaurant is very important to the neighbourhood: it’s a very poor area with basically no infrastructure and this restaurant is one of the few places were local people can meet, and also work. Their long struggle had a lot of twists and the reaction has been fierce. Workers were even attacked at night by people armed with knives and baseball bats. Psychological pressure was huge too: at one point last year, one of the leaders of the movement (the deputy director of the restaurant) locked himself inside the restaurant and threatened to set himself on fire if the workers’ demands were not met.
“WE ARE ON OUR OWN.”
On the 3rd of April, Guemari is officially asked to email the managers of McDonald’s France for permission to use the restaurant “for an urgent humanitarian operation.” To no avail. “Even the liquidator agreed” said Blindauer, the employees’ lawyer. “Hence this requisition”, explains Salim Grabsi.
“There is probably something to be said about the process which lead those workers to requisition their restaurant: the experience of the strike, the harshness of the reaction and their long struggle definitely have something to do with that.”
On Friday, there were a dozen volunteers, gloved and masked. In the cold room, the crates are piling up: bananas, pineapples, yoghurts… In another room, dry goods are stocked. On the tables of the old fast-food restaurant, “meal baskets” are prepared: “enough to last 2-3 days, morning, noon and evening, for a family of four,” explains Julie. Outside, vans unload the donations: Emmaüs (one of the biggest French charities that fights poverty and homelessness) delivered a shipment from the Food Bank and the association ‘’La Caillasse’’ delivers the unsold goods collected at the ‘’Marseille National Interest Market.” At the “drive” counter, others load this merchandise into cars to bring it to the Cités, the poor suburban housing estates home largely to people from migrant backgrounds.
Busserine, Font Vert, Rosiers, Micocouliers, the names of some of the Cités of Marseille, are on a poster taped to the wall. Next to it, the first names of the referents in charge of centralising needs: Djamila, Farouk, Florence, Isabelle or Kevin. On the third column: the number of packages to deliver. “We manage on our own,” smiles one of them, Djamal, who has come with the Busserine football club’s van to collect pasta, milk and cherry tomatoes, but also chocolate eggs for children on Easter weekend.
“NOT PROFESSIONALS OF MISERY”
“We are not professionals working on poverty, this operation also aims to call out the authorities,” insists Salim Grabsi, regretting that local authorities have been slow to intervene. Jean-Claude Gaudin, Mayor of Marseille (from ‘’Les Républicains’’ right-wing party) spoke on social networks on the 24th of March. An action committee to deal with the emergency met for the first time on Thursday. Since then, the municipality has multiplied press releases to explain its action: thanks to school stocks, 1,500 to 2,000 meals are served every day in local restaurants and 500 to 600 daily meals delivered by the SAMU Social. Similarly, a financial assistance measure was announced for the 2,000 or so children who benefited from free school meals.