A view of Avenue Des Champs Elysees on April 19, 2020 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Paris on lockdown: ‘Eccentric’ running and a chastened president

Macron admits mistakes as quarantine continues in France

My wife called me excitedly soon after having departed to the grocery store to restock our supplies of alcohol and cheese. She instructed me to run downstairs in full haste. The fellow who runs the cell phone repair shop on the corner of our street had surreptitiously reopened for half an hour. I had ten minutes left to rush over and to pay double the usual rate to have the broken screen on my phone fixed, thus avoiding the potential nightmare of meeting the apocalypse head on without access to my email.

France suffered its 20,000th death over the weekend and we are now a month into the quarantine. In terms of the state’s limitation of the individual’s movement, the quarantine has been about as severe as that of any Asian democracy. To their credit, the French have yet to introduce any of the innovations in technological surveillance that are implied by the tepidly sinister term “social tracing”. One experiences a transgressive thrill when venturing further than the legally prescribed kilometre away from home. The French police have been extraordinarily diligent in carrying out checks of documents and attestation forms which one must fill out upon leaving one’s domicile. I myself have been stopped at least half a dozen times. Once, eight riot police in full battle kit surrounded me as I jogged along the Canal St. Martain. In a typically Foucauldian act of medical state disciplining, they began to interrogate me on the reason that I was running in such an odd and even “eccentric fashion”. The grim faced gendarmes showed little appreciation for my explanation of the “Ministry of funny walks”.

The centralised French bureaucracy and state apparatus were almost literally designed to deal with this sort of social catastrophe. As my American friends have complained about the US Treasury department possibly not having the technical capacity to print their single $1200 bail out check before July, the first tranche of emergency disbursements from the French state have began appearing in people’s bank accounts. Perhaps in appreciation, the French population has largely complied with the government’s orders in a way that they had not in the past. One should remember that most of the population had refused to be inoculated during the swine flu epidemic of 2009. In fact the nearest historic antecedent (especially in relation to trust in the government in the wake of massive social upheavel) was to be seen with the 1969 pandemic that hit France in the wake of the events of May 1968. But the newspapers wrote about other matters that year, and the society had not come to a standstill.

The tone of President Macron’s third address to the French people this week, was markedly different from his previous speech on March 15th, when he had closed the border, exhorting us to feats of solidarity with wartime bluster. He had been manifestly chastened in the months since the “we are at war” speech. Macron spoke forthrightly and candidly, admitting that the French state had been shown to have been unprepared for the pandemic. Mistakes had undeniably been made. The technocratic sheen that he had shown in his earlier response had irrevocably worn off, as the much promised facial masks seemed nowhere to be found. The government’s public approval ratings for handling the crisis had plummeted by double digits.

Everyone expected the quarantine to be extended, but that the external border would remain closed indefinitely was news.

Macron explained that the French would need to continue wearing masks and gloves in public spaces and on public transport after the conclusion of the quarantine, but almost every pharmacy in Paris still seems to have a sign on its door cautioning us  “Pas de masques, pas de thermomètre, pas de gel”.

Later in the week, perhaps as part of his bid to show himself to be a leader of the much frayed liberal world order, Macron proposed a compact for world peace during the course of the pandemic. It makes a certain amount of sense that we should have a farcical reprise of the Kellogg–Briand Pact if we are also to have a reprise of the Spanish flu, though the timeline is still a bit off chronologically speaking.

In France, as in swathes of the rest of the world, the advice of scientists and medical experts has accrued a moral mandate which has temporarily proffered them something akin to the right to rule. As if to underline the unexpectedly rapid manner in which expertise had regained its aura in the age of populism, Macron undertook a pilgrimage to visit the now world renowned microbiologist Didier Raoult in Marseille.

The week marked the first anniversary of the inferno that set alight the Notre-Dame Cathedral, with restoration having ceased. The French courts had also forced Amazon to shut its distribution centres in France in defence of the union workers toiling away in its warehouses, and to cease non essential deliveries. By Friday night, the French defence ministry had confirmed that the primary naval strike group of the French fleet had been knocked out of commission by the plague. Around half of the 2,300 sailors on board France’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle — as well as those aboard her support ships — had become infected. Despite not having any ships of the line — the Coronavirus had replicated Lord Nelson’s feat at the battle of Trafalgar, with the strike group being forced to steam home to its home port at Toulon.

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