Artillery Row

Letter from Paris

Life goes on in the city of light – even if nobody knows quite what they should be doing


The bloom of spring has descended upon France early this year. In the midst of the pandemic Paris has been blessed with gloriously perfect weather. Thus, after a biblical forty days of quarantine, the French might be forgiven their impulse to slacken, if not totally abandon, concern with the plague as it continues to envelope our social life. More people are to be seen taking meandering walks. Ever more restaurants quietly reopen their doors for takeout. A clandestine shadow economy that flouts all social distancing norms has developed. Already one can find the discreetly hidden cafes, restaurants and even night clubs – not to speak of the rumored sex clubs – which have sprung up to service those who are willing to brave both the virus and the flics. The nightly 8 o’clock synchronized ovation to honor medical staff and first responders remains anemic  – but after forty days in confinement Paris seems to be stretching and stirring toward rejuvenation, if not full fledged rebellion, against the boundaries of the virus realm.

A Russian-American professor of my acquaintance living in Paris informed me of her amusement at the British imagining of the “French as a disciplined and state-trusting nation, as I have observed much negligence towards the famous ‘barrier gestures’ in le Marais as well as the striking indifference of the police to reinforcing any discipline”. Indeed, living on the right bank of central Paris, I daily observe children playing ball games in front of our arrondissement’s city hall. A balding man wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt gingerly walks his gargantuan grey cat on a leash. He smiles gently as the children pet the miniature puma that is perched on his shoulders. The post office began to operate for limited hours every day, a well regulated line of well distance individuals forming at its entrance. They are waved-in by a stern security guard wearing a black suit and matching black shirt. His only accessory is the neon orange “security” armband looped over his shoulder. I spy our quartier’s postman lounging on a bench, beer in hand. The French state will doubtless encounter further problems in containing the population from socializing and the sun will not be a valiant ally in that battle.

Every individual must confront these strenuous times in her own manner. In my own household, we have retreated into listening to opera every night. World class opera companies stream the classics of their back catalogue daily. It is easy to overindulge. We speculate about which opera house we will visit first after the quarantine is lifted? The Garnier? The Metropolitan? Covent Garden? Plague and music have been kindred companions in Europe since at least medieval times.

Inevitably, social cracks have begun to appear. In a potential reprise of the mass turmoil that swept through the French industrial suburbs in 2005, French police clashed with youths in the Paris suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne. In the wake of a video circulating of an unmarked police car hitting a motorcyclist (he was taken to the hospital with a broken leg), the incident kindled a shooting war between protestors and police forces: volleys of fireworks were met with tear gas. The imbroglio between the inhabitants of the impoverished working class neighborhoods and the authorities (who are accused convincingly of over-policing those neighborhoods) has illuminated the inherent strain on those communities. They have been amongst the most affected by the virus and are home to a disproportionate number of essential workers who are obligated to keep the gears of society turning in severe times – and to risk contracting the virus in doing so.

essential workers are obligated to keep the gears of society turning in severe times – and to risk contracting the virus in doing so.

By the weekend, both chambers of the French parliament had adopted the final coronavirus crisis budget. The spending package of €110 billion was approved in the Senate with only the communists voting against the measure. The Palais de L’Élysée has announced that its long promised “deconfinement” strategy will be unveiled later this week, while also signaling that the rollout might not take place on a “regional level”. It had previously been assumed that the process could be “regionalised”- as some regional governments had demanded. The issue of weather mass travel (that is without permits or paperwork) between the various regions would be allowed does not seem to have been resolved. Some sources have claimed that the government plans to retain the ban – with certain regions pushing back strongly against it – but the president’s office coyly announced to the press that it was “not aware of this track.” It has in fact been very hard to tell what is happening from the various contradictory accounts.

A sprightly debate has also broken out between the regional heads, the powerful French city mayors, and the minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, over the question of children being obligated to return after the schools are reopened in mid-May. The center right-paper, Le Figaro, has reported that the Élysée Palace views it likely that “wearing the mask will remain ‘probably imposed’ in public transport and will remain ‘recommended’ to the population in mass transit.” Last week, the Academy of Medicine stated that the wearing of masks should be mandatory. That is despite the mask deficit not seeming to have been resolved yet – with officials from certain regions (including Hauts-de-France) publicly demanding clarification on whether children will be required to wear them on the day that they return to school.

The French government’s decision to annul the biennial European Athletics Championships, originally slated to have taken place during the final week of August, is a quiet indicator of how long they intend to keep emergency measures in place.

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