Running the biggest risk I’d run since knocking over a big bloke’s beer in a bar in Benidorm, I went to vote in France’s local elections yesterday. (That’s the kind of fun you get to have when you’ve added French nationality to your birth-right Britishness.) I took my own biro to minimise viral transmission danger and made for the polling station. It was, as usual, installed in the village school. Unusually, all the electoral officials – mainly village councillors – were wearing masks and rubber gloves. I should have expected this, but didn’t. “I’ve come to vote, not have invasive surgery,” I cried, thinking to lighten the mood. This didn’t work as well as hoped.
“Ha, ha,” said someone, not because he thought it funny but to humour me and perhaps hurry me out before I said anything else really stupid. The French, in short, are very good at taking no notice of rules – relentlessly, for instance, smoking under No Smoking signs – until convinced that things are truly serious. Then they do rules and seriousness as well as, indeed probably better than, anyone else. Add an election (democracy in action, etc) onto the ravages of the coronavirus and a semi-shutdown of the country, and you have seriousness times two or three. Weak jokes simply don’t fit.
And, boy, is France glorying in gravity right now. On radio and TV, and everywhere else, commentators and government members compete to be more serious and apocalyptic than the one before. They are not telling us that we’re all going to die, that the virus will then return next winter and kill us all again – but they’re not far off. The crisis gets redefined upwards on the hour, every hour. It seems that obligatory total confinement of pretty much everyone to his or her home is on the cards in the coming days.
Already, in what may be the greatest shift in social mores since everyone stopped wearing hats, French people have entirely changed their forms of greeting. All that kissing (three times in Languedoc) and hand-shaking – practices which meant that entry into a social event often lasted longer than the event itself – have been ditched. Embracing a friend is now accounted an attempt on his or her life.
Then again temptations are fewer now that bars, cafés and restaurants are shut. This has cut at least 15 per cent out of most people’s lives, mine included. As you’ll know, cafés aren’t like pubs – they’re all-day-long meeting places, their customers adapting their drink to the hour of the day. Shutting them is shutting down the most basic social intercourse. And the suddenness didn’t help – the measure being announced only hours before it came into effect on Saturday at midnight. That meant, for instance, that restaurateurs who had bought in large stocks for a busy Sunday were left with it on their hands. “It was hard,” Nicholas Breedon, Manchester-born owner of the Bonobo restaurant in Montpellier told local reporters. “We’d stocked up for Sunday, our busiest day, when we serve between 150 and 200 people.”
Other restaurateurs in the southern city told similar tales to journalists. A few were outraged that the police were already checking on them at 12h01 on Saturday night. Adding in shut shops, cinemas and theatres, there are presently some 800,000 French retail businesses closed for the foreseeable future. “We’re going to need the cancellation of taxes and social charges by the State and understanding from the banks. Otherwise half of us will go to the wall,” said another restaurateur, speaking for many. Over the weekend, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said that the cost of state aid to repair the coronavirus damage to the economy would amount to “several tens of billions of euros.”
Obviously, entertainment has gone out of the window, with theatres and cinemas closed and the Cannes Film Festival, due to kick off on May 12, under threat. Professional sport, too, is becoming a memory – particularly annoying since we had family tickets for the Montpellier-Marseille match last Saturday. Try telling a seven-year-old that he won’t be seeing his soccer heroes because of an illness which neither he nor anyone else he knows has got and, believe me, it’s like talking someone down from a ledge. He only recovered when told – tada! – that school was out for spring.
The school closures kicked in this Monday morning, with 13 million children and students suddenly released back into the community – and, more specifically, to their own homes. Our grandchildren came out of primary school on Friday with satchel-fulls of text-books and exercise books, plus details of internet sites correlated exactly with the courses they’re following. Teacher is available during school hours, by email. The only children still in school are those whose parents are health workers, or emergency services personnel.
Other parents must cope. This will be helped by the fact that vast numbers of, mainly, office workers are being urged to work from home. The French call it “télétravail” – on the assumption you’ll be working by phone and information technology, rather than watching TV. That may be a new definition of “optimism”. At any event, lots of parents are at home and so able to relish unprecedented stretches of family life. Or, as a friend of ours put it: “If it’s a straight choice between being with the kids 24/7 and the coronavirus, I know which I’m choosing.”
However all these families cope, all April exams have been postponed, as have driving tests. Sadder than that, perhaps, is the postponement of weddings – but, then, who would be a coronavirus bride?
That said, some things carry on. When I went out today, the binmen had been – nothing stops our binmen; they are my heroes, visiting us, on various refuse missions, three times a week – and people were spread out across nearby fields picking asparagus. A mild winter means it’s come early in 2020, which is cheering for those of us who love asparagus.
I made for the hypermarket, for food shops are among those retail outlets allowed to stay open, and we needed chicken. Our nearest hypermarket is one of the vastest of all France’s huge hypermarkets. There was – surprisingly – no queue outside, nor any security men filtering the entrants. Shoppers were perhaps a little more numerous than on a normal Monday, but not dramatically so and their behaviour was well-short of panic-stricken. OK, a few wore masks. But, that apart, these were 100 per cent normal shoppers. There were, of course, gaps in the aisles devoted to flour, rice and pasta – fuelling the rumour that Italy spearheaded this damned virus outbreak precisely to increase sales of pasta – and, oddly, also in the ranks of organic olive oil. But toilet rolls could be had in abundance (get in touch, I’ll send you some, a tenner a roll, plus p&p). Also books, in the culture section. Though almost everyone is now at home, with time on their hands, there seems to be little danger of the panic-buying of literature.
I moved on. Queues at the check-out, though full of no more people than usual, actually stretched right back to the butchery and wet fish sections, everyone endeavouring to keep one metre between him or herself and the people before and after. It is a little-noticed fact that a supermarket trolley is almost exactly a metre long, and so facilitates this exercise no end.
Back in the little town nearest our village, the bank, PO, service station, newspaper shop, bakers’ and tobacconist were all open, as they’re allowed to be. Tobacconist? It’s not just that some French people are desperate for cigs (which they are; cigs may be sold only in the tabacs) but also because le tabac operates as a bank agency plus as an agency of the state for delivering certain licences, for the vital sale of lottery tickets, and the paying of certain fines. Aside from these establishments, everything else was shut – yet the streets were alive with people strolling to those shops which were open, stopping and greeting one another from a distance. It was more like a Sunday morning than the end of days.
That said, returning to the village was like getting back behind the lines after a foray into no man’s land. Well, very slightly like it. Our village store had the chicken which I’d been too impatient to wait to pay for at the hypermarket. It also had familiar unmasked faces, so we exchanged stories and rumours of the Great Unpleasantness. “They say it will last two to three years,” said a fellow buying sausages. I also bought the local paper, to learn that the list I’d voted for had won the local election. This wasn’t entirely surprising as only one list had presented itself. One voted simply to show approval for their record.
I drove home the long way, out of the village. At the point where the country lane joins the main road was parked the camper van of the local prostitute. British visitors sometimes find it odd that a sex worker should operate in the middle of the countryside – but that’s maybe because they’re British. Anyway, I was cheered by her presence. The virus may be monstrous, but it’s not locking quite everything down.