Adnan Farzat/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Hope and recrimination in the City of Light

Macron gets a hard time but Paris is beginning to bustle

Are you one of those who has spent their quarantine productively? Might you be counted among the battalions of scribblers who have written an essay on the deeper meaning of Albert Camus’s The Plague? Seemingly all of my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, companions, allies of venal convenience and dearest enemies have spent their quarantine dutifully churning out essays on The Plague. Does our modern plague represent the revolt of the earth or is it a transmogrified variant of fascism? Is the Covid-19 pandemic a mimetic manifestation of pure metaphor? Somedays I feel as if I am the only one not to be adding to that epigonic epidemic. Don’t get me wrong: it is not an unworthy manner to while away the time, but when I was in school I avoided doing the prescribed homework.

Before the quarantine had begun, members of the French government engaged in a sprightly and improbable debate on whether to keep the bookstores open, with the idea finally being shot down as impractical as the cordon sanitaire was drawn around them. Feel free to rejoice famished citizens of the republic of letters! The bookshops have reopened in Paris. Over the weekend I took a stroll along the Seine. About half of the dark green painted bookstalls along the riverbank have recommenced selling old paperbacks sheaved in plastic and prints. I picked up some volumes – Aragon, Flaubert, Georges Perec and Boris Vian – to support the intrepid bookmen and to tend to my bibliophilia. “Look at who has joined us” a jovial bookseller chortled at the black crow which had landed at my feet as I rummaged through dusty stacks of artbooks

Paris is bustling again but the city still feels as if it is only half open. The drawdown reopening of public life, “deconfinement process” – but  what a friend refers to it as “the managed fizzling down of the quarantine regime” – has begun to creak into motion, even if it is still hard to know which direction the machine is moving in. Parisians have also begun clamoring for the government to reopen parks, and the gendarmes no longer disrupt the young people sunning on the banks of the Seine. During the evenings thousands of young people would gather there to drink wine out of plastic cups.

the French government engaged in a sprightly and improbable debate on whether to keep the bookstores open

The French government has also allowed shopping to resume, with many boutiques and shops open for business (for no more than five customers wearing face masks at one time). The windowsills of certain shops in the Marais have filled-up with designer facemarks: are you adventurous enough dear reader to wear one with the purple leopard print? Or perhaps the one with feathers, gemstones and S&M spikes? Some of the major clothing franchises have also instituted serious deals in order to offset the two months of loses. Thus, the impressive queues that have formed in front of every Zara outlet (as well as those formed by the motorcycle couriers waiting to pick up takeout from McDonalds) which remind me uncannily of my childhood experience of waiting for Cuban bananas in the early 90s Moscow bread lines.

The outdoor markets beloved by generations of Parisians have had their vitrines wrapped in cellophane, and we have not seen a return of the jostling crowds which caused the government to ban commerce at the markets in the first place. I happened upon a bizarre scene walking away from the Marché d’Aligre: some Olympics level bodybuilders had set up an outdoor gym and were lifting hundred kilogram weights in the middle of the Rue Charles Baudelaire.

Le Monde has reported that the number of resuscitation patients in French emergency rooms had declined by 24% in one week. The number of new infections has also decreased in linear fashion, but one still hears the ambulance sirens most days. President Macron continues to be (somewhat disproportionally) assaulted on the French news programmes over his handling of the crisis. This week he insisted that there had never been a shortage of masks. As I have written before, unhappiness with its ruling elite is deeply characterological for the French public and some of the criticism do seem to be unfair given the French per capita infection rates in comparison to neighbouring countries.

Those arguments were given further credence this week by the issue of a European Commission report on systematic “shortcomings” in the French healthcare system as well as “gaps in the preparation of the system for pandemic situations”. Brussels also criticised the serious regional inequalities in infrastructure and the French health ministry announced that it would be offering pay raises for doctors and nursing-home workers. This likely being done to ameliorate the upsurge of public criticism. The salaries of nursing staff have become enough of an issue to cause President Macron to swear that he would put an end to the “paupérisation” of hospital staff.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gambled her legacy with her constituents by agreeing to French-German backed 500 Billion Euro Coronavirus relief bonds, but as the sceptic said: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover