The French can’t help but “faire la fête,” or to party, even when it’s against their best interests. Although President Emmanuel Macron last week urged all French to stay at home and avoid crowding up against each other in cafés, bars, restaurants and parks, the French did just that last weekend. Bars overflowed, restaurants hummed, parks filled with families and frolicking. So, in response to this very French need to ignore government advice, France has decided effectively to shut down in the wake of the pandemic. Parks are now closed. Restaurants, bars and cafés are shut. Only supermarkets, bakeries, butchers, tobacconists and, maybe, somewhere, wine shops, are open (there are certain essentials to uphold).
This follows the extreme measures that Italy took to fight against the propagation of the virus, especially in the face of an overloaded healthcare system. Macron spoke again Monday night, for the second time in a week. Without uttering the word “confinement,” he pretty much ordered citizens to stay put, avoid each other, stay at home and read.
A curfew began at noon today, so people had a few hours in the morning to further empty the half-empty supermarket shelves. Beginning at noon, in order to leave your house, you needed an “attestation de déplacement dérogotoire.” This is a sheet of paper you fill out and keep with you when you leave your house. You need a new one every time you go out, and if you don’t have a printer at home, you yourself can handwrite your own attestation, using the language from the form. On the attestation, you mark your name, age, address and reason for leaving, such as shopping, visiting the doctor or making a necessary family visit (though it’s forbidden to visit old people, who are, with the insidious ageism common to viral outbreaks, among the most vulnerable). The government has mobilized 100,000 police to ensure that the curfew is respected. You won’t be shot if you’re caught without your papers, as in a World War II movie, but you can be fined up to several hundred euros.
So, Paris is deserted. I got back yesterday on a not-crowded train from Toulouse (the train service, the SNCF, is cutting back severely on train travel to keep people from escaping to the country to spread the coronavirus among loved ones with rural homes). I had spent the week before visiting friends in the southwest, in Ariège, in the midi-Pyrenees region, which so far has been untouched by the coronavirus. But it’s only a matter of time.
In southwest France, as in Paris, and I imagine everywhere in the country, people are anxious, uncertain and disoriented. France isn’t alone, of course, in shutting down. But since so much of Parisian life is spent outdoors, the lack of people on the street creates an eerie unwanted quiet that could be mistaken for calm. It’s more like a stifled panic.
The panic sometimes shows, though. On returning to Paris yesterday afternoon, I headed to the local supermarket to pick up a few things for the next few days, not realizing that the strict curfew would be called for today (and not knowing that I’d be deciding to return to the States earlier than expected). At the Marché Franprix, on a little-trafficked side street off the Avenue Wagram, in the 17th arrondissement, I took a place behind three other people waiting to enter the supermarket. We stood about a meter apart from each other, as is now required. A heavyset old man pushed by us, leaning on his cane with one hand and carrying a large yellow shopping bag with the other. He tried to push aside the store manager who was standing at the door, letting people in one at a time, as customers left the store.
“Sir,” the manager said to him, “you can’t enter. Please wait in line with the others.”
“But I have priority,” the man insisted, his red face reddening as he raised his voice. There wasn’t much of a wait to get in, so the man had succumbed to the spreading fear of not having enough.
“You do not have priority,” the manager said. “No one does.”
“But I do,” the florid old grouch said, and tried to push his way into the store again. The manager pushed back.
“You’re not standing a meter apart from each other,” said a woman in line. In France, it’s always important to honor the rules, even new ones.
The man then shoved the store manager, who shoved back, and the older man fell onto the sidewalk, looking up in astonishment. We all stared at him for a long moment. Should we be nice enough to help him up and risk being infected? Or should we let him lie there, since he brought this on himself? Before any of us holding our precious places in line could act, the manager stooped down, grabbed the man’s hands, and helped him up. The man trudged back to the line — right behind me, as it happened — grumbling about what France had come to.
France has come to what a lot of other countries are coming to: a nauseating awareness that much is beyond our control and that we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Most of us can barely keep it together.