The mayor of Paris's 20th arrondissement has asked residents of her neighbourhood to stop denouncing each other. 'When it's a question of violence against women or children, or selling drugs, I'm still all ears,' said Frédérique Calandra this week. 'But these calls stigmatising Parisians who wish only to get a breath of fresh for a few minutes, they're unacceptable.'
Passing on a message from the police, Calandra told people to stop denouncing their neighbours for petty infractions of the confinement regulations because it was overwhelming their emergency phone lines.
In reporting the case, Le Parisien newspaper headlined its story 'Halte à la délation', which is the word for passing on information to the authorities. It was common currency during the war, when a large minority of French society enthusiastically denounced their neighbours and acquaintances during the German occupation.
There was an expression for it: J'irai le dire a la Kommandantur [I will go and tell the commandant], taken from the headline of an article written by the poet Robert Desnos in September 1940 in the newspaper Aujourd'hui. In one of the last acts of brave editorship during the Occupation, the paper appealed to people's 'sense of dignity' to stop snitching on their compatriots. The call went unheeded and by 1942 the Germans were receiving 1,500 letters a day from denouncers, many advising them as to the possible whereabouts of Jews. Most justified their actions by saying they were motivated by a sense of civic duty, and they signed their letters 'a good Frenchman' or a 'loyal Frenchwoman'.
It's a subject that has troubled the French ever since, spawning books, films and magazine articles, such as the one in 2017 headlined: 'La délation, une passion française'?
If denunciation is a French passion, then it appears it's one shared by the British, although we prefer to describe it as providing police with 'tip-offs'. So many have the police received since the country went into lockdown that – like their Parisian counterparts – they're struggling to cope and have asked people to reprimand neighbours themselves for minor one-off transgressions of the regulations, such as going for two runs a day.
Unfortunately that advice has led to some distasteful incidents. Earlier this week in Cambridgeshire a nurse returned home from a 12-hour shift to find a handwritten note had been put through her letterbox, telling her: 'You are a disgrace and you have been reported. Stay at Home Saves Lives.'
In Hampshire, an NHS worker confronted a group of teenagers sunbathing in a park and angrily told them they were breaking the social distancing rules. 'Well, don't stand near us, then,' one of them sullenly retorted before he and his friends moved on. The youths were defying the lockdown rules but the woman's self-righteous behaviour was unedifying. And what was her reason in filming the incident and uploading it onto social media, other than a form of virtue signalling?
Should one be surprised that the British have been as zealous as the French in denouncing each other? The only British territory occupied by the Germans during the war was the Channel Islands, and they were pleasantly surprised at the extent of the co-operation they received. One Guernsey schoolteacher wrote in his diary on August 4 1942: 'I blush for my fellow Islanders. They are giving one another away right and left about black market dealings. How they find each other is remarkable but the way they do betray their friends is hateful.'
In her book, 'Model Occupation', Madeleine Bunting wrote that one of the most painful legacies of the occupation for Channel Islanders was 'the fact that many of their neighbours turned informers. It was a deep shock to realise that people could betray their own kind.'
It was a shock, too, for Winston Churchill, that British people could behave in such a way. A week after the end of the war he sent Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, to the Channel Islands with instructions to hush up the collaboration. 'If anything has been done that needs white-washing at the other end, I will take of it,' Morrison told the Islands' officials. So effective was Morrison that the myth endured for decades that there had been no collaboration and that denunciation was indeed a 'passion française'.
It's not, it's human nature. There will always be people who comply with orders, no matter how draconian. And there will always be those who don't comply. The former resent and often envy the latter and so report them to the authorities.
We see it now in Britain, Italy, Germany and in every country where there is a lockdown. In Spain they even have a name for them, the 'balcony police'. It wouldn't come as a surprise if many of these balcony police also perform a similar function on social media, hunting down people to 'call out' for some ideological crime or other.
Coronavirus has revealed much about the emotional state of the West, which is fragile and fearful. What it hasn't done, however, is reveal anything new about spiteful, vindictive busybodies; they've been around since time immemorial.