Issue 233: 2020 05 14: Le Deconfinement

14 May 2020

Le Déconfinement

How are the French coming out of their lockdown?

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

We are stumbling out of lockdown in France.  At least, I am.  I wore a mask for the first time while out shopping in my village yesterday.  I nearly stepped into the traffic.  If Covid doesn’t kill me, wearing a mask will.  How do you stop your glasses steaming up?  The woman who runs the ironmongers said her son had found a spray which will do the trick.  She’d let me know more today.

Florence, the village’s potter, was delivering free masks last Sunday.  “A mask for every Lotois” it says on the packaging, together with instructions to wash it at 60 degrees for at least 30 minutes and tumble dry.  So much for Covid-19 making us more caring of the environment.  I am no longer a permanent resident of the Lot Department but Florence insisted I got two masks.  One for my wife too, even though she is in England.  We were both on Florence’s list and so I must take two to keep the bureaucrats in Cahors happy.

We are still not obliged to wear masks, except on all public transport and if shops insist you do.  Around here most women have been wearing them for weeks, few men have until now.  Which is pretty stupid of us mecs; we’re more likely to catch the virus.

France is divided into Red (departments where the risk of catching the virus remains high) and Green.  Plenty of commentators have noted how the map bears a striking resemblance to the country in June 1940 – the German-occupied north and the Vichy south.  Some have gone further and wondered why France has suffered another “strange defeat”, as French historian Marc Bloch dubbed the swift and inexplicable capitulation of France’s armed forces 80 years ago.  The Germans have beaten us yet again is the implication.  Our leaders must be at fault is the accusation.  At least the same commentators may find solace in how badly the British (no, the English) are doing in fighting this virus.  I have not seen any mention of Dunkirk yet but wonder when this betrayal of the French by the British will somehow be worked into the French narrative.

I was a little surprised (and delighted) to learn on Monday that anyone coming into the UK from France, as well as the Republic of Ireland, would not have to go into a 14-day quarantine.  But entrants from all other EU countries will?  Has anyone explained the “Science” behind that decision?

Monday, the first day of the déconfinement, was not so different from pre-Covid Mondays when most shops are shut in rural France.  But I nearly got run over crossing the road.  I’ll bet car accidents and road deaths shot up all over “Green” France.  I have been able to stand in the middle of the road at the bottom of our garden and hold conversations with neighbours throughout the eight weeks of lockdown.  It became a race-track on Monday.  Can we beat the lights and zip down the Roman arrow-straight road for four kilometres at 100…110 kph or more?  Were these people (men?) aiming to get to the 100 km limit from their domicile as fast as their Renaults and Citroens would take them?  Were they escaping the (un)loved ones whom they had been cooped up with for two months?

In truth, easing of the lockdown in this part of France had been happening long before Monday.  Artisans visibly returned to work at the beginning of last week.  Clever excuses were made for why non-essential shops should be open.  The resourceful Fabienne, who runs our village haberdashery, opened to sell knicker elastic and cotton cloth so that people could make their own masks (“and since you’re here, madame, why not buy something else?”).  People were walking their dogs a good deal more than one kilometre from their homes.

I went down to the village’s river beach on Monday and to an impressive limestone gorge 20 km away on Tuesday.  Two pompiers were practising launching their red lifeboat off the slipway at the beach.  I met two ancient hikers at the gorge.  Both beauty spots were over-run; with late Spring flowers and tall grass, not people deprived of Nature for so long.  Perhaps it will be different this weekend when drier and warmer, but even in high Summer my wife and I have often not met a single person on the hundreds of tracks and footpaths which criss-cross this area.

One question now being increasingly asked is when the local elections will be finished.  These elections, for mayors and councillors around the country (including all the big cities), are usually held over two rounds, one week apart.  If a list of candidates does not get a majority of votes in the first round, there has to be a second round of voting between it and the list with the second biggest number of votes.  President Macron insisted that the first round went ahead on Sunday 15 March, even though he announced the French lockdown the day after.  In my village, the incumbent mayor’s list lost out to one which won a fraction over 50% of the vote.  Even so, he has remained mayor.  Why?  Because legally the new regime cannot take over until the whole electoral process has been completed and the new mayor and council have been officially sworn in.

It was no surprise that he lost.  The village postman’s wife worked in the Mairie.  When last year the postman discovered his wife was having an affair with the mayor, he went in to the Mairie and broke the mayor’s arm.  This provoked some amused comment and faux-innocent questions about the origin of his injury.  But what really did for the mayor was his insistence that the village’s budget be used to pay his legal fees, on the grounds that the assault had taken place on state property.

So, I was pleased to read on the back page of May’s updated village news-sheet a letter from the winning list to the villagers, thanking us for our adherence to the rules of the lockdown and praising the way in which the mayor had managed affairs (mayoral ones) while they waited to take over.  Special mention was made of his success in persuading the préfete in Cahors to keep the village’s twice-weekly markets open throughout the confinement.

Will such kind words between political adversaries be part of the post-Covid future?  Maybe for a short time at the local level once those elections are over (next month?).  But at national level the blame-game is in full swing.  What effect it has had on the French public is hard to gauge.  Macron’s popularity rating hovers around 35%.  But all his main rivals are liked by even fewer of their fellow citizens.  The closest is Marine Le Pen who got just 20% support among those questioned in one poll this week.  “A plague on all their houses” was the comment of one friend, fully aware of the words he was using.

I’ve planned my escape back to Britain.  Next Wednesday (so probably no Shaw Sheet article from me, Ed).  The only way out is via Paris.  But the biggest worry is whether I will be allowed to make the 4.5 hour journey by train to the capital.  Not a single option of the seven on offer in the new attestation – Déclaration de Déplacement en dehors de son département et à plus de 100 km de sa résidence – covers someone who is trying to return to their permanent residence outside France.  The British embassy has, so far, been unable to advise me.  The mayor got his secretary (same mayor, different secretary) to ask the préfecture for their advice.  Now I know.  I am coming back to Britain because my déplacement est pour motif familial impérieux…  In this context it means I am going for pressing family reasons.  But I rather like the idea that an imperious family is demanding my return.



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