Le Carnet de France: 'Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine'
By Martine P. and Frederick H. Dulles
Every person studying the French language has read or learned this beautiful poem written by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). We mention this poem, because, since our last article about the situation in France in the April 2020 Mercury, “beaucoup d’eau a coulé sous les ponts” (a lot of water has flowed under the bridge) and not only under the Pont Mirabeau in Paris.
A year ago, we wrote about the troubles that France has been facing since 2015. The last paragraph mentioned the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic confinement, which the French government instituted on March 17 and which ended seven weeks later on May 5, 2020. Many other issues have emerged since, but most of them have been set aside by the challenge of this pandemic. We may have our differences, but COVID-19 is blind and affects all of us around the world regardless of nationality, race, color or religion.
Remember, France has a national government. The president, the prime minister and the ministers, together with the Parliament, all based in Paris, make laws and regulations and set standards of behavior for the whole country. Still, there has been an amazing number of local initiatives by mayors, small companies and individuals to deal with the crisis, provide needed services and make some good business — and some of the successes are being reported in the national media.
France, with a population of 65 million, has had 3.6 million cases of COVID-19 and 84,000 deaths as of mid-February 2021 (WHO Dashboard). At the beginning, the east of France was the most heavily hit with the disease, but now it is generally all over the country. Recently, the British and South African variants have appeared virulently. Hospitals are overcrowded with cases, and treatment for other nonurgent medical issues has to be postponed. Medical staff is overwhelmed and exhausted. Particularly challenged are nursing homes (EPHADs — homes for dependent elderly persons), where since March 2020, family members have been largely prohibited from visiting their elderly relatives.
During the first confinement, everybody had to stay indoors except for certain very necessary purposes — buying food, medical appointments or professional obligations. If leaving their residence, French citizens had to carry a signed form attesting to the purpose of being out and about. All schools, cultural institutions, retail commercial outlets, restaurants, bars and religious sites were closed, as were most hotels. No social gatherings were allowed. Travel beyond 100 kilometers from home was prohibited.
As spring came, the situation slightly improved, and the regulations were lightened. Stores, restaurants, museums and movie theaters were gradually allowed to reopen, and travel within Europe was allowed.
During the summer, new cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and deaths declined. However, in the fall the pandemic came back, and a second confinement was put into effect from October 30 to December 15, 2020. During that period, primary and secondary schools remained open, and outdoor food markets were allowed.
With the beginning of the holiday season and recognizing the pandemic’s economic impact, the government replaced the confinement with a strict curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. During the day, stores were allowed to be open. However, restaurants, bars, museums, theaters and cinemas have remained closed.
On January 16, 2021, the curfew was even extended to start at 6:00 p.m. All shopping malls were then required to close.
Travel within France, since last spring, has been open. Although reduced in frequency, public transportation is available, but with many people being afraid of contamination, automobile usage and traffic jams, especially in Paris, have increased. The air industry has been hit catastrophically. If you go somewhere overnight, you can find a hotel, but no restaurants. Meals (room service or your sandwich) are to be eaten in the hotel room.
The elements of French life that have been most affected by the government restrictions are small and medium businesses and activities that bring people close together. Inside stores, offices, other public places and in public transportation, we are required to wear masks, and we are supposed to stay at least six feet apart from one another. Upon entering any public space, you have to cleanse your hands with a gel sanitizer.
Many weddings have been postponed due to the restrictions on the numbers of persons who may attend. Funerals are limited to the immediate family. Religious services are also constrained and require seating in alternate rows and in one chair out of three.
The realm of culture has been very hard hit, with all theaters, museums, concert halls and cinemas closed. Actors, musicians and artists are all suffering. Bookstores were also closed, even though many people are reading more and have started ordering books online. On the other hand, many cultural programs and presentations are now made available as webinars or Zoom meetings, and consequently reaching a much wider audience all over France. Some theaters have put plays on television or online. Music groups and orchestras are also performing online.
Sports events cannot be attended but are still being broadcast.
For many French people, living habits have dramatically changed such as ordering a prepared meal from a restaurant — even from some restaurants with Michelin stars, which was previously unheard of. Online shopping for everything has soared. Small shops have learned to deliver. Family life has been affected by this pandemic. The government is strongly encouraging enterprises to have their employees work from home at least three to four days a week.
Like everywhere, providing education during the pandemic has elicited great debate. Since the end of the first confinement, France has worked hard to keep open the primary schools for children as well as secondary schools (collèges for students aged 11-15 and lycées for students aged 15-18). Fortunately, last summer, the famous baccalauréat exam (age 18), with adjustments, was held successfully. At universities and university-level schools, which have been closed since last October, all courses have been given online. Some are beginning to reopen for partial teaching. Students are desperate to go back to their campuses for instruction and social life.
In Paris, where we have not been since October, we understand the city is very quiet and sad.
Three out of four hotels are closed, and many of them have boarded up their façade. Of course, many outdoor cafes, restaurants, and small shops as well as branches of major retailers have closed.
As of this writing, only French residents are permitted to return to France, and they have to show negative testing for COVID-19. Persons from the European Area have limited access subject to constraints. Persons from outside the European Area will have to show that they have a French or EU residence permit or long-stay visa.
We do not know when this will end. Many people have been expecting the government to institute a third confinement soon, but the country’s leaders are very hesitant. When you speak with French people, they are very conscious of the economic impact of the pandemic. Overall, most are adjusting and dealing with the situation with a philosophical attitude. They will admit that what they miss the most is socializing with friends and families and not being able to go out to restaurants.
Martine P. Dulles and Frederick H. Dulles live in Tours, in the Loire valley of France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston for many years. She now organizes bespoke tours in France and is a translator for cultural material. She may be reached at email@example.com. Frederick is an international business lawyer and an external lecturer at French graduate business schools; he may be reached at FHD@dullesdeleu.com.