In Paris there is a new nightly ceremony. At 8 p.m., many people for the past few nights have come out on their balconies or stood at their windows and applauded.
The applause is for doctors, nurses and ambulance personnel who are on the front lines dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in France. It’s almost the last group activity in an otherwise weirdly quiet city.
Like soldiers under guard, Parisians and the French in general are confined to barracks. To step outside, residents like me need to arm ourselves with Interior ministry certificates downloaded from our computers, filled out and signed — one each day.
We are limited to shopping at nearby stores, going to the pharmacy, going for a walk with or without a dog, or going to work. That last requires further proof of need from the company.
And so, tentatively, I go out. The surrounding streets are quiet, but not empty. But those on the sidewalks look hesitant and keep a safe distance from passersby. Unlike in parts of London, or Canada, there is toilet paper in stores.
There appear to be no police on the prowl in the neighbourhood. But they’re out there around the country, more than 100,000 of them, checking for certificates — and fining those without them.
French Police officers search a young man along the Seine river bank, in Paris, on March 18, 2020. There are fines for people who are out of their homes without permits. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)
“We’re only fining people who treat us like idiots,” one Paris cop told a local newspaper.
It’s better not to treat them like idiots. In the first four days of “confinement,” 375,000 people have been checked and more than 18,000 have been fined, according to Interior ministry figures. And the fines are heavy — $210 each time.
This zeal to check and fine can go too far. In Lyon, the country’s second most populous urban area, police handed out fines to four homeless men unarmed with certificates, according to the newspaper Le Progrès. The local prefecture is checking.
Leaders aren’t happy with the populace
Despite all this activity, the country’s leaders are still not happy with their citizens.
It goes back to Sunday, March 15. President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had made nationally televised addresses calling on the country to show discipline and stay inside, except to vote in municipal elections. Schools, pre-schools, shops, cafés and restaurants were ordered to close.
People did vote, although not in large numbers. Many in Paris also took advantage of sunny weather to stroll along the Seine or to sit and picnic in parks.
There was disbelief in government offices. “Parisians seemed to be acting as if there was nothing to worry about,” one aide to the prime minister said. This on a day when the number of infected in France stood at 5,423 with 127 dead.
A presidential adviser went further, uttering this line, quoted widely: “The spirit of enjoyment has overcome the spirit of sacrifice.” This was an astounding and damning sentence, since it was first uttered by France’s Marshal Pétain in his speech of June 20, 1940. The German army had overrun France and Pétain had accepted defeat and Hitler’s terms which set up the puppet state of Vichy under Nazi occupation.
That was France’s most humiliating hour in modern history. Pétain’s statement put the blame for this humiliation on the people. The French had failed their leaders and had opted for pleasure over duty in the years leading up to the war.
Apparently modern government officials believed the French had failed their leaders again.
On Monday, March 16, Macron went on television for a second time and laid down the law. The French would be confined to their homes for a minimum of two weeks. “We are at war,” he said no fewer than six times.
Days later Macron was still disappointed in his fellow citizens. Visiting the Pasteur research institute on March 19, he said, “too many French people are not taking the government rules seriously enough. When I see people still going to parks, to beaches, to outdoor markets, it’s clear they haven’t got the message.”
Shutting down the beaches
The same day the government announced beaches along the Mediterranean and in Brittany would be off limits from now on.
On Friday, March 20, police were posted at train stations with orders to stop the expected crowds of people trying to get away to the country for the weekend. This, the Paris prefecture said, was not permitted by the Interior ministry certificates.
For good measure, the banks of the Seine were also declared out of bounds.
How to explain the gap between government and citizens?
One French historian, Jean Garrigues, in an interview with the magazine Le Point, linked the problem to the modern phenomenon of the gilets jaunes – the “yellow jackets” who set up roadblocks for weeks in 2018-2019 to protest against rising taxes and an indifferent Paris elite.
“The gilets jaunes simply refused to obey the requirements to obtain official authorizations. It’s hard not to make the link when we see our compatriots refusing to follow the rules.”
But Macron’s government is also under fire from one of its own. Agnès Buzyn, a doctor herself, was until February the minister of health, a key member of the government. Then she was pushed into running as Macron’s candidate for Paris mayor after the first candidate was caught in a sexting scandal.
A worker wearing protective gear uses disinfectant to clean a polling box as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 on the eve of the municipal elections on March 14. Macron has been criticized for allowing the elections to go ahead. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)
Buzyn came third in the elections on March 15. The next day she gave a blistering interview saying that, as health minister, she had urged the government in late January to postpone the elections and to prepare for the pandemic, and was ignored.
Instead, she said, preparations were no more than a “masquerade.” That interview ended her political career.
Ministers were furious but the French Prime Minister Philippe didn’t deny the accusation. The fire on the government has also come from other frontline troops.
Questions over lack of preparation
As the toll mounts, hospitals in the north and northeast are so overwhelmed that they must send coronavirus patients for treatment in the south. And doctors and health workers express public anger at the government’s poor preparation. There is, for example, a lack of surgical masks in hospitals.
“I’m furious,” said the head of the French Doctors’ Federation, Jean-Paul Hamon. “Our health workers haven’t been protected, we’ve been totally forgotten.”
Hamon himself has coronavirus in a country where the number of diagnosed cases has climbed to over 14,000 and the number of deaths jumps by dozens a day.
Macron may have called on his people to wage war, but his troops seem ill-trained. And some are very angry with their own generals.
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