France

Coronavirus: What happens when an emergency becomes normal?

BY Walter Ellis | tweet Waltroon   /  25 March 2020

If the latest official pronouncements are to be believed, France is eight days from the peak of the Coronavirus epidemic, which up to Monday of this week had left 1, 100 people dead, with another 22, 304 confirmed cases.

In Italy, which has tentatively reported that the worst may – just – be over in terms of new cases, some 69,00 people have tested positive for the virus and more than 6,800 have died. France, with a somewhat larger population is said to be on much the same trajectory, meaning that we should expect a dramatic increase in the number of confirmed cases and deaths in the week ahead. But of course, such a projection may turn out to be wide of the mark.

Nothing is certain. Only when the crisis abates, will the statisticians be able to come up with a fully-reasoned analysis.

What can be said for sure is that France, thus far, is not in a state of panic. There are particular pockets where the disease seems to be rife – the Paris region, with its tightly-packed population of around 12 million, and, more surprisingly, Alsace, abutting Germany, the nation with the least number of deaths per capita in Europe. The city of Mulhouse, disputed between the two countries for centuries, is especially hard-hit. Special trains have been used to transport the overflow of patients out of the region to other parts of France, and help has come, too, from neighbouring Baden-Württemberg – an encouraging example in these closed times of “hands across the Rhine”.

But elsewhere, including in my own department, the Côtes d’Armor, in central Brittany, the number of known cases is tiny and there have been only a handful of mortalities. We are in lock-down. The streets of our village are empty. In our local supermarket, Intermarché, the checkout staff are wearing what look like space helmets and an increasing number of the customers wear masks. But the shelves are fully stocked – except for the “British Aisle,” which has run out of McVitie’s digestives and tins of tomato soup and baked beans, looted by les anglais in anticipation of a protracted siege.

On Monday evening, I watched the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, answering questions at length on TF1’s evening news bulletin, which was about the coronavirus to the exclusion of everything else. It was a novel format. The presenter, Gilles Bouleau, invited Philippe to watch each of the news items and then respond to the issues raised. At one point, a different guest, an experienced doctor, chipped in to ask about ventilators and surgical masks.

The PM, the bottom left of whose black beard has turned white in recent days, was calm and collected and obviously well briefed. His primary formal announcement concerned the regulation of open-air markets, which he said should operate only with the consent of local mayors, who would have to evaluate the alternatives (if any) open to their communities. But beyond that, he was reassuring, echoing the tone of his master, Emmanuel Macron, whose star is rising again as his notoriously fickle compatriots acknowledge that the President is doing his best in an impossible situation.

As in the UK, the forces of law and order – which in France are divided into the Police Nationale, the gendarmerie and locally-recruited municipal officers – are somewhat confused about how they are supposed to keep order in a world gone mad. They have been told to ignore petty crimes, including burglaries, drug offences and traffic violations, leading to a drop of as much as 75 per cent in the numbers detained overnight or awaiting charges. The coronavirus ordinances, intended to keep France safe in the midst of a health emergency, could end up a virtual carte-blanche for criminals.

On the law-abiding side of the ledger, most of the French have obeyed the lock-down and remained in their homes (except for when they go out to obtain food or medicine, at which point they must carry a sworn attestation).  But millions still have to go to work each day to provide the necessities of life in an advanced society – not only health workers, but the police, supermarket staff, food processing workers, utilities specialists, train and Metro drivers, journalists and, round here, farmers. All of these, and many more, remain at risk of catching and transmitting the disease. But if they all stopped work, the coronavirus would be the least of France’s problems. Anarchy would be the inevitable outcome.

In addition, there are the “usual suspects” in every town and village who insist on their right to walk the streets, enjoy a drink in the park or engage in conversation with their mates on the street corner. The police have been instructed to impose fines, starting at €135, but on what legal basis and with what likelihood that the fine will be paid? They have also been told, as in the UK, to prevent gatherings of more than two people. But how is that supposed to work, and what is a gathering anyway? How is it different from a conversation?

“Move along, no loitering,” is likely to become the most used expression in France in the coming weeks and months. And if that doesn’t do it, “Vos papiers, s’il vous plait”.

Much concern remains focused on how people are going to be paid as the crisis deepens. Macron has promised that no one will be left in the lurch, but the mechanics of the exercise are still being worked out, leading to fears that millions will be neglected and left to starve in their homes.

House prices are, needless to say, tumbling. A friend of mine sold his country house this month for a mere €45,000. He had hoped for twice that. But since his sale went through, the bottom of the market has sunk deeper still, with no end in sight.

And these are early days!

The really big question, in France as well as in every other European country, is, how long is this going to go on? It is one thing to be barricaded in your home for a week, or even a month, but what if the pandemic refuses to subside and the lock-down continues through the summer and into the autumn? Just about no one has an answer to that one.


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