Late-onset Covid is exactly the grim experience you would expect it to be. Hacking cough, headache, shortness of breath, leaden limbs, above all a wearisome fatigue that makes you want to curl up in bed, except that you can’t get comfortable and end up flat on your back staring at the ceiling. 

The good news – at least in the case of me and my wife – is that it didn’t look to be deadly. Louisa got the all-clear this morning and I’m hoping to follow suit tomorrow, which means we may just make it to the pub on Sunday. 

I blame Paris, of course. Louisa had gone there to attend an art opening and must have picked up the virus either from the art crowd or on the densely-packed TGV on the way back from Montparnasse. Stricken within two days of her return, she thoughtfully passed on the malady to me just in time for us both to miss market day. 

It was lucky that we had done a big shop on the day she got back. The bread we found was one of those dense loaves that lasts for days, and our neighbour Mael kept us supplied with goat’s milk and fresh eggs, which she left for us on the steps of the terrasse. 

Yes, but what about the near-collape of France into anarchy and the abyss? I realise that up to now I have neglected to mention the obvious – the nationwide riots that followed the shooting by a traffic cop of a 17-year-old delivery boy in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. If you had read about the unrest in the mainstream press, both British and French, you might have assumed that Armageddon was just around the corner. France’s immigrant community had risen up like an avenging angel and there was no telling how the situation would end, other than that it would be bad ­– very bad – for the authorities in general and President Macron in particular. 

But not only was I watching the goings-on from my sickbed, checking in with the 24-hour rolling news served up by BFMTV, I also felt that I had seen it all before – even though I hadn’t. France has been falling apart ever since it first came together. The cause on this occasion was clear-cut. The officer who pulled over Nahel Merzouk for a traffic violation no more intended to start nationwide race riots than Officer Derek Chauvin did when he kneeled on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. It was when he drew his gun and shoved it though the open window of Merzouk’s rented car that the countdown began. The boy panicked, the officer lost it, and the result was the worst, and longest, sequence of street violence, arson and looting since the last time, which happens to have been in 2005. 

What I was looking for as I lay sweating in bed was an indication that something more was at work than mere resentment, however deeply felt, on the part of the rioters. And I couldn’t see it. There were no leaders, only followers, mostly operating to a timetable set by social media. The ones throwing petrol bombs and fireworks, most of them under 20, some as young as 12, were angry, to be sure. They know that France is a cold house for blacks and Muslims. But they also know that this is the way it has always been and that any progress they make as a community, or communities, will be long-term. 

In the meantime, it made perfect sense to overturn a bus, smash shop fronts or set fire to a tax office. To liberate a flat screen television or an iPhone from a store whose prices they could never hope to afford was a logical bonus – not a revolutionary act but the exploitation of an opportunity. They knew when enough was enough. They didn’t want to end up with a criminal record and, having made their point to the powers that be, the smart move was to quit while they were ahead. 

The media, for their part, couldn’t help themselves. They turn instinctively to history as a guide to what happens next. It is as if they have a date with eternity and don’t want to be late. The template, and the basis for their ongoing myth of societal collapse, is, of course, the Revolution, beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Nothing in the history of the last 500 years would have as great, or as long-lasting, an impact on France as The Terror. Nothing, outside of war, even got close. There was the violent civil unrest of 1848 that forced the abdication of the last Bourbon monarch, Louis-Philippe. There was the Paris Commune of 1871, ruthlessly suppressed by the Army with the loss of as many as 20,000 lives. And then there were the événements of 1968 – an uprising in which no one died and nothing of lasting value was accomplished other than to convince De Gaulle, aged 78, that maybe it was time for him to retire to Colombey-les-Deux Églises. 

Were last week’s riots up there with any of that? I would say not. France bled a little. The volume was turned up to eleven. There was much shouting and gnashing of teeth. In the end, though, both police and rioters, as well as those looking on, took a deep breath and drew back from the brink. Change comes dropping slow. France today is the same as France yesterday. More’s the pity, some would say. 

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