Gavin Mortimer

Macron’s ‘war’ on coronavirus is bringing out the best and worst in Parisians

Macron's 'war' on coronavirus is bringing out the best and worst in Parisians
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I missed Emmanuel Macron's address to the nation last night. I popped to the supermarket, guessing (correctly) that the queues of earlier in the day would have dissipated with most people at home in front of their television sets listening to what their president had to say.

I stocked up on essentials – wine, cheese and chocolate – and returned to the anticipated news that as of midday today France is under lockdown, or as they say across the Channel 'confinement'. Bars and restaurants have been closed since midnight on Saturday, and from now until the end of month (and probably beyond) one can only venture outside with a completed government form explaining the purpose of the sortie: to go to work, to buy more provisions at the supermarket or to walk the dog. Those who don't have the necessary paperwork are liable to have their collar felt by one of the 100,000 police officers now patrolling the streets and fined £120 (€135).

In his live address Macron scolded his compatriots for their behaviour on Sunday. On the first warm spring day of the year, hundreds of thousands Frenchmen and women had cocked-a-snook at coronavirus and frolicked in parks or lounged by the Seine, ignoring the advice from their president the previous Thursday to stay indoors whenever possible. 

But who can blame them for making the most of the sun, particularly when Sunday was also the first round of the local elections? Talk about a mixed message: go out and vote but don't dawdle in the park on the way home. The second round of the elections have been postponed until late June and Macron has promised financial assistance to small businesses. 'No French company, whatever its size, will be exposed to the risk of collapse,' he said. Nonetheless, the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, warned today that a recession loomed despite his initial £40bn (€45bn) aid package.

I had intended to return to Britain at the end of last week but I've decided to stick it out, curious to experience what Macron described in his address as 'a war'.

'We're not up against another army or another nation,' he explained to his people, 148 of whom have been killed by coronavirus and 6,600 infected. 'But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.'

Running with the martial analogy, one magazine today compared the coronavirus pandemic to June 1940 when the German invasion of France 'made the economic and political repercussions difficult to predict'.

There are other analogies between the two dates, even though the war of 1940 was infinitely more grave to that of today. Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of a new exhibition at the Museum of Liberation in Paris chronicling the exodus of Parisians as the Germans advanced on their city in the early summer of 1940; today the French papers are full of reports of Parisians who have fled the capital to more salubrious abodes in the countryside. Now, as eighty years ago, it is more often than not the well-off who have chosen to bolt, having the transport to leave and the second home to go to.

Among the Parisians who are staying put there is, for the most part, a quiet camaraderie. People may not be getting too close to each other but in the days before the confinement came into effect there was often a smile and a nod when you passed in the street or paid at the supermarket.

There are also, as was the case in 1940, a minority of men and women who delight in denouncing their fellow citizens. One tweet shared widely on Sunday showed a photo of a florists flouting the shutdown. Elsewhere, many people uploaded photos onto social media of Parisians sunbathing in the parks accompanied by censorious captions.

But social media can also uplift. One meme doing the rounds is a series of mocked-up photos of a maman cooped up with her kids. 'Day one' has her reading them a story as they sit blissfully on her lap; by day 26, mummy has snapped and has a rocket launcher perched on her shoulder.

It's true, for the moment the 'confinement' is rather exciting, but I suspect the novelty factor will soon disappear. Along with my wine and my cheese.