Parisians on the banks of the Seine as France slowly reopens (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The liberation of Paris

Two excruciating months of lockdown have been lifted

After two excruciating -at least they have been for this writer – months, the French quarantine was at least formally lifted on Monday. One is required to say “at least formally”, because the constraints on what one is allowed to do are being lifted very slowly, even if one no longer has to fill out that cursed form every time ones leaves the house. The parks and museums remain closed. There is no ordering an espresso at the bar just yet. Paris still feels strangely emptied – most of the million residents who had left for the countryside before the confinement order had taken effect in the middle of March have probably not yet returned.

My friend and fellow American expatriate in Paris Thomas Chatterton Williams -he himself fled the capital for a country house- wrote in the New York Times that “the chief executive of the [Cell phone company] Orange estimated that from March 13 to March 20, a staggering 17 percent of the population of Paris and its neighbouring suburbs decamped to their country houses”. Yet, now after two months of confinement the streets of Paris were teeming with people moving, uncharacteristically, with an almost New York or London register of movement. The young people drinking beer on the sides of the canal were by no means social distancing

France is stumbling languidly out of the lockdown as if out of hangover. The specifics of the sequence for reopening industry and schools and restaurants remain mostly unavailable. These are seemingly being cobbled together in haphazard fashion by an overwhelmed government. There is some implicit tension between Paris and regional administrations. France has been highly successful with its regional containment strategy, keeping the virus bottled up in the Northern and Eastern regions, and in converting its high speed rail for the movement of patients between regions. Indeed simmering conflicts have began erupting on all fronts.

The French are never happy with those who govern them – an epigrammatic observation that is all too easily proven by the political scientists- but the abrupt leap in Macron’s approval ratings that we saw upon the start of the crisis seem to have been obliterated over the previous months. The French public has become ferociously critical of its governments response to Covid 19, despite some missteps and issues with securing masks, the Macron administration had done fairly well. The Senate had voted down ratcheting the lockdown in a purely symbolic vote. The population has criticised the government’s response despite the fact that it is likely one of the most effective measure for measure across Europe, the healthcare system did not collapse and the fact that the government was truly efficient in the use of transfers to keep the population from starving to death (at least 10 million workers were kept afloat by direct deposit schemes.) 

I can be counted firmly amongst those who have not fared well psychologically under the quarantine regime

Over the last week, a surreal linguistic debate broke out wether the word “Covid”, was a feminine or masculine word. It had seemed fairly obvious that the virus was masculine, but the Académie française decided on the feminine “la Covid”.

A total of 1,771 confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been reported by the French armed forces across all services, which includes the entire complement of the thousand sailors who manned the flagship aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle ( another 5,400 probable cases are also likely) – which knocked the carrier out of commission and back to its port in Toulon, as I have written in this column previously. If one ever wanted to invade France from the Mediterranean sea, this is clearly the moment to do so. The Marseille based iconoclastic scientist and Didier Raoult, founder and director of the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection (IHU) research hospital has been elevated to the level of the sacral by both the French and the international press. The NYTimes reported that votives with his image were being peddled in Marseille. Perhaps I myself should pray to St. Raoult of our lady of the hydroxychloroquine?

For I can be counted firmly amongst those who have not fared well psychologically – if also spiritually – under the quarantine regime. I habitually travel – for work, pleasure, out of ingrained nomadic routine- and have not spent eight weeks without boarding a train or plane in more than a decade. The transition was painful at first. Soon, I levelled off into the placid sense that reality holding in stasis -there was time to catch up on Opera and to reread Nabokov’s “Speak Memory”- but very soon the sense of limbo and clotted time became intolerable. For those of us who typically inhabit the space in our heads or over the skies, who are relatively unencumbered by attachments to particular places, this virus has dismantled the freedom to move no less than a world war typically does. We have seen endless journalistic predictions of the end of travel with the articles about the death spiral of the airline industry appearing with grim regularity. We have also had to elide the endless prophesies that “nothing would ever be the same”. Last week, Michel Houellebecq France’s national oracle of onanistic doom, intervened in the debate to deflate the histrionic mass predictions of decline with his own that “everything would be the same, but worse”. This was a perfect refraction of the utopian maxim beloved by academics- attributed to either Gershom Scholem,Walter Benjamin (or both) – that “in the world to come, everything will be the same, just a little bit different”. After the plague ends but before the Messiah arrives, will Air France let me keep my elite flyer status?

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

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

Critic magazine cover