France under house arrest

Phone talks have become longer, meeting friends on Skype more welcome, those who love books get immersed in reading

I have never seen Bellencour, the central square of Lyon, absolutely empty. Only some clochard was snoozing in front of the newspaper kiosk. While I was taking pictures, he disappeared as well. Probably this is how the city looked during the tragic autumn of 1628 when it fell victim to the plague. And this time everything started in a seemingly innocent way.

Alarming signals started coming from TV and newspapers about “some Chinese virus which has spread from Italy”. But, as there's a rule saying that any novelty is but a “nine-days wonder”, life was going on as before. The cafes' terraces and restaurants were full. “Lovers who snog on public benches,” as in the song of the unforgettable Georges Brassens, were also there. And the spring had come warm and full of colour as always. What else could one need!

So it was, until Monday night on 16 March President Emmanuel Macron dampened the proverbial Gallic carefree attitude with a cold shower opening his address to the nation with the words: “We are at war!” The remaining part of the text is well known because these are the alarming warnings which all heads of states across the globe sent to their peoples.

The next day France wasn't the same anymore. One after the other were shut down restaurants, cafes, bars, libraries, kindergartens, schools, universities… Just like everywhere else. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, post offices and (hurray!) tobacconists' shops remained opened.

Little by little, all those who could work without leaving their homes were staying at home. The rest have simply put down shutters. As an answer to the mute question of “How will we pay our monthly bills?” the President explained: “We will let not a single small business owner go bankrupt nor let a single worker or clerk lose their monthly pay because of the quarantine. The State will pay!”

How the necessary calculations will be made and how the damages of every citizen will be redressed has not been specified so far, but the pledge has been already made. We'll wait and see!

However, this speech, although quite clear-cut, proved insufficient. Later on, Minister of Health Oliver Veran had to explain in more detail what precautionary measures must take every person with common sense. Alas, this hasn't produced the necessary result either, because many people took it as an “encroachment on individual freedom”. That is why in two subsequent TV interviews Minister of Interior Christophe Castaner explained: “We don't want to fine or punish anyone but the thoughtless nitwits who pose as heroes and break the rules will be held accountable for their misconduct.”

What do the imposed measures boil down to? Strolls in parks are prohibited, as well as friendly chats on public benches and weekend trips. Shopping for essential goods must be done in the nearest store. The police has the right to ask the citizens to show a filled-in declaration form with the bearer's name, address and age and the purpose of leaving home - shopping, visit to a doctor, bank or post office. The sample of this document was circulated on the internet. The aim is to prevent unnecessary trips, as it might happen that people take metro or a bus to go to the other end of the city only to buy cigarettes or a baguette. There are no limitations related to age groups or shopping hours.  

Are these police measures? In my opinion, the answer is “no”, because where civic consciousness is in deficit, the law has to intervene. For instance, the fine for a forged declaration may reach €15,000 and one-year imprisonment. The fine for shoplifting may amount to €45,000 and a four-year jail term.

What happened in the stores? Naturally, many people's initial response was to panic. Shopping carts were filled with mountains of toilet paper, flour, pasta, sugar, cooking oil and cans of food. The shelves of many large supermarket chains got ravaged, which made me think with some nostalgia about the socialist era in Bulgaria, when people had to queue for hours just to buy a bunch of bananas. But here, neither bananas nor toilet paper, nor even black caviar, went totally missing, and people gradually stopped turning their homes into warehouses.

The medical specialists in this country deserve a thank you letter, which I could never fit into this text. They are on the front lines of this battle, doing everything they can and doing it well. The shortage of hospital beds in Alsace has forced the military to set up emergency hospitals, while private clinics throughout the country have also been recruited to help. Medical advice about precautions is aired in messages before every TV show, along with toll-free phone numbers of specialised emergency lines.

Outside of that, life goes on. Telephone conversations have become much longer, Skype chats with friends more welcome. Those who have books and love reading get immersed in reading. The rest have internet and TV to fill their time.

When will France come out of the crisis? Excellent question, to which no one currently has the answer. There is talk about five or six more weeks of this. Let us hope it is not longer than that. Meanwhile, sociologists predict a coronavirus baby boom and a spike in the number of divorces. Well, as the locals like to say, “Qui vivra verra” (Whoever survives will see what is to come).

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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