I spent Saturday night with a dozen French blue bloods, hautes bourgeoises and banquiers at a hunting chateau on the banks of the Hérault river. It was an enchanting autumn evening. We finished pre-dinner apéros and as we were called to table by the ancient retainer (the last servant remaining, after decades of Republican depredations), the gilded Second Empire clock on the chimney piece chimed 9pm. We didn’t know it, but this was the last supper. At least for a while. A country celebrated for its cuisine, has just cancelled dinner.
The rules are still evolving but it’s possible that our meal would have been an unlawful assembly, had it been this weekend, and not last. Too many of us, for a start. And after our official bedtime. President Macron has copied his friend Boris Johnson and from now on, it’s a strict règle de six. But he’s gone further and declared a couvre-feu – a curfew. Not only will it be illegal to eat in a restaurant after 9pm, it will be illegal even to drive or walk down the street, without a legal excuse.
Has Macron thought this through? He is famously brilliant but has a proven track record of ignorance of ordinary people, hence the catastrophic decision early in his presidency to raise fuel taxes and simultaneously cut wealth taxes, provoking the gilets jaunes movement. Now he’s imposing nighttime house arrest on much of the population, not to overlook threatening dinner, and why, and for what? It’s baffling.
There is, we are told, a second wave of Covid in France, and it’s true that hospitalisation, reanimation and deaths are up, after the dramatic summer decline. But is not a rather normal October pattern for respiratory disease? The other element is a tsunami wave of test results that are nevertheless not conclusive evidence of infection. But they seem to have panicked the politicians.
In France, the highest level of restrictions will be imposed from Saturday on all restaurants, bars and theatres in Paris, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble, Montpellier, Rouen, Aix-Marseille, Toulouse and Saint-Etienne, which must close by 9pm. There will also be a curfew. Anyone on the street after 9pm without an excuse will be fined 135 euros (£120). This will certainly rise. The French government notes admiringly the £10,000 fines being imposed on Covid offenders in the UK. It seems like around 20 million people will be affected. But they are likely to be noisy.
From 17 March until 11 May, the French put up with a so-called confinement and there were no restaurants at all. But even though restrictions seem less strict now than they were then, I am not sure they will be universally respected and certainly not in the sensitive suburbs that surround all of the French metropoles on the lockdown list.
I suspect also that none of these measures will have the slightest effect on the progression of the virus. Or even that Macron cares. This is all theatrics. If the second wave turns out to be a brief ripple, the politicians can claim credit later, as the virus fades away, or perhaps a vaccine might become available, or perhaps some new existential crisis will emerge.
The virus is just not being taken as seriously as it was in March. Although life has superficially continued here in France, especially outside of the metropoles, restrictions on business, travel, sport and culture are starting to irritate. Some 61 per cent think he’s not been on top of the crisis. Macron’s credibility is thin. It’s odd that he thinks it’s a good idea to expose himself. That’s what prefects and prime ministers are for.