Empty Champs-Elysees is seen as coronavirus continues to spread (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

A dispatch from Paris under martial law

Is this what we should expect in London?

Artillery Row

It was the ides of March as I boarded one of the last planes leaving Kyiv’s Boryspil airport for the journey home to Paris. The next evening the French Republic would be placed under martial law, reneging on the European Union’s guarantee of the democratic right to freedom of movement. Over the weekend it was becoming increasingly obvious that European borders would begin shuttering one by one. It was now a matter of strategically deciding where one wanted to wait out the quarantine. 

The flight into Schengen was full of expatriate Ukrainians holding British and Dutch and Norwegian passports as well as groups of brash young Americans evacuating the country as the Peace Corp cut short their missions. Soon enough, Ukrainian border guards would cease allowing Ukrainians with dual nationality from leaving the country. A Ukrainian parliamentarian I am acquainted with arrived home from a trip to France, testing positive after having had attended Rada meetings and spending two nights arguing in the studios of the evening political talk shows. 

Having arrived home to Paris on Sunday night, it turned out to be far too late to contemplate an escape from the capital. Emmanuel Macron, the president of the French Republic would be delivering a major speech on Monday night and we would soon enough be plunged into a literal real life enactment of Albert Camus’s “The Plague”. Those of us who had had the foresight or resources to get out to the countryside quickly enough – that is before the rail services had been cut and the roadblocks set up -would instead be living through “The Decameron”. In any case, outside of the cities people were not particularly welcoming – Paris was viewed by many French in the regions -in deeply primordial fashion- as source of infection.

Nous sommes en guerre” Macron soberly intoned. In his address “we are at war” rang out a half a dozen staccato times. It was a rhetorically impressive speech and unlike certain other European heads of state he would be taking decisive measures. Over the previous month and a half, the French government had been observing the unfolding medical catastrophe in northern Italy, and it had become clear that the trajectory of infection would follow a similar vector. Macron called for a total “mobilisation générale” against an enemy that was was “invisible” and “insaisissable”. The language of the collective battle against an implacable and invisible enemy eating away at the body politic from inside would have been familiar to viewers of Chernobyl documentary films. Macron promised a massive bail out of every business in France with military hospitals being converted to civilian usage. Macron urged the French to make sacrifices and informed them that they would have to stay home under a quarantine regime just shy of the Italian total ban on leaving the home. The Schengen zone would be closing down for thirty days after consultation with European governments. There has been nothing on this order of confinement in the French capital since the city had been freed from the Nazis.

Having spent his political life preparing for the moment when he would  reenact Churchhill’s wartime performance, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had failed abjectly when that moment had arrived. On the other hand, the ‘herd immunity’ approach embraced by the British government did not hold a particularly Nietzschean flair, with Macron playing his newfound DeGaulle role quite convincingly. A card carrying member of the minuscule Grande école educated technocratic elite, he had been settled on as a consensus leader to staunch France’s slide into populist reform against the very elite from which he had sprung. In a particularly unlikely turn of events the “post-ideological” compromise figure was catapulted into the role of war time president.

The physical internment of the entire French citizenry is not merely theoretical however: every French citizen is mandated to fill out a form indicating the reason for leaving home. The form is filled out according to one’s honour, but fines are being levied for people who stray too far from home. Over the last few days the gendarmes have been out in force randomly checking people as they go about their business.

Restaurants, cafes, bars, gyms, banks and schools had been shuttered by government decree with only groceries, supermarkets, and boulangeries being allowed to operate. Lone buses ply the mostly empty roads as small squads of police randomly check our paperwork to deter people from taking unnecessary trips. Despite the lovely spring weather, during the day the streets have been thinned of crowds as individuals walk alone and study each other wearily. 

The supermarket were emptied the day after the new rules had been announced, but have since been restocked. Lines have begun to appear outside of supermarkets and pharmacies, with two meters of space between people. Surgical masks are in short supply and are being distributed evenly between regions.

As I walked along the Seine during the afternoon, a tall jogger collapsed in front of me from seizures, breaking his nose and bleeding from the mouth profusely. Wether this was Coronavirus or epilepsy, a dozen Frenchmen ran up to him to help, demonstrating that social bonds had not yet been frayed. Wandering the deserted streets at night, I would only see the occasional kloshar or lone individual walking a dog.

Many in France have criticized the measures taken by the government as lacked in swiftness and too little too late. Another 89 French citizens expired over Wednesday night, bringing the total number of fatalities up to 264, with the total number of cases edging toward 10,000. Which puts the country right behind Italy along the curve. We are living through a historical moment, when the new regime of self sufficiency coexists with government intervention – at first slow in its response, the French government is now at the forefront of a suddenly inflected mass experiment in radically changing social behavior as our civilization is forced to retool its central organizing  principles. 

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

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover