A Letter From Wartime France

Streets that are normally busy, all of a sudden aren’t.

At noon today, as France slipped into confinement, I looked down from my balcony at the street below. A few people were riding bikes or walking. At the tobacconist next to the closed café, a woman was wiping down the door frame. The street is normally busy, and all of a sudden it wasn’t. For the next two weeks, and likely longer, we cannot go out except for urgent reasons: food, medicine, or essential work. A nationwide lockdown, enforced by police. “We are at war,” French President Emmanuel Macron said six times in a speech yesterday evening. “The enemy is there—invisible, elusive—and it is advancing.”

Macron is right. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed thousands and will likely kill thousands more, a tsunami that doctors have been warning will overwhelm the health-care system, as it’s already doing in neighboring Italy, the country hardest hit by this virus after China. This weekend, the government ordered all restaurants, cafés, and retail stores closed in France.

And finally, last night, Macron followed Italy and Spain—but not Britain or the United States—and mandated confinement to slow the exponential spread of the virus. Overnight, Macron, who was elected on a fluke and has faced popular revolts and flagging popularity, has become a war president.

We are at war. How strange to hear those words in Europe in 2020. It’s impossible, here in Paris, not to think of the Second World War. Not since then have countries in Europe imposed this kind of confinement on citizens. Not since then have borders closed so fast. (As during the war, many have fled Paris for the countryside.) Not since the introduction of the Schengen Area, a 26-country zone without any internal border checks, has the European Union shut its borders, as it did this week, forbidding all nonessential travel into Europe for the next 30 days. Inside the Schengen Area, Germany has closed its border with France, one of the most fraught borders of the 20th century, and Spain and Slovakia also closed their borders.

“Epidemics, like disasters, have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact,” my colleague Anne Applebaum has written. They also reveal underlying truths about the relationship between a government and its citizens. China suppressed information about the coronavirus outbreak when it first hit, then began to test aggressively and effectively placed millions of people under house arrest. The U.S. has become a chaotic, Darwinian free-for-all, which may lead to the loss of many lives. And France’s response, like Italy’s, is a particularly European one—denial, fumbling, growing awareness, and now a lot of state spending, especially on health care, social welfare, and protections for workers.

One of the wars being fought here is against the virus. Another is for the European social-democratic model. As recently as a few weeks ago, as Macron and other leaders across Europe were advocating slashing state budgets, I would have said that model was nearing an end, but now it might be seeing a revival. Things change fast in wartime. In his speech, Macron rose to the occasion, in rhetoric if not yet in follow-through. He said the state would provide child care for health-care workers and requisition taxis and hotels at state expense to place them closer to hospitals. It would call retired medical professionals and medical students into service, and was repurposing military hospitals for civilian use. The country’s protective masks have been allocated for health-care providers.

“I’m asking you for sacrifices to stop the epidemic,” Macron said, “but these should never come at the expense of the most fragile.” He pledged 300 billion euros, or $330 billion, in loans to small and medium-size businesses, and said the state would waive social-security payments, utility bills, and rent for those who couldn’t make ends meet. “No business, no matter what its size, will risk failure,” Macron said. “No Frenchwoman or Frenchman will be left without resources.” He promised tax breaks and unemployment pay to workers who can’t go to work, and said jobs would be protected for salaried workers. He also hit pause on all reform measures, including a highly controversial pension bill that had led health-care workers, doctors, lawyers, transit workers, and many other professionals to go on strike, sometimes for weeks.

We are at war. Anyone who’s ever faced a medical emergency knows how it can reshape friendships. Sometimes people you expect to come through don’t, and ones you didn’t expect to show up for you do. China sent a planeload of respirators to Italy, much to the delight of Italy’s far-right League party, which made the case that China is helping Italy more than Europe is. In a recent video message, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tried to show her solidarity with Italy, saying in hesitant Italian, “We are all Italians.” She didn’t sound so convincing. The president of Serbia, meanwhile, lashed out at her, after Serbia (which is not part of the EU) was told that it could not import medical equipment from the bloc. “European solidarity does not exist,” he said. “That was a fairy tale on paper.” He said he wrote a letter to China’s Xi Jinping, and addressed him “as a brother.” “I believe in Chinese help,” he said.

We are at war. In France now, we cannot leave home without filling out a form, swearing on our honor and stating the urgent reason for which we must be outside. (Italy has a similar form, called an auto-certification.) To enforce this new confinement, France is deploying 100,000 police officers to make sure that people are leaving their house only for genuinely pressing needs. (Not since terrorist attacks in 2015 have so many police patrolled the streets.) At first the fine will be 38 euros, but it could go up to 135 euros. “We don’t want to punish people, but we want everyone to have a sense of responsibility,” the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said today. Responsibility. Sacrifice. War. This is the new vocabulary in France.

We are at war. Anyone watching Italy closely, as I have been, could have seen this war coming in France, and Macron could have mounted the counteroffensive days earlier, to greater effect. Other governments worldwide should learn from Europe’s mistakes. Here in France, the government and media, always cozy, were slow, and therefore so was public perception. Just a week ago, after the Italian government placed the entire country on lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, I went to a supermarket near my house and bought a supply of bleach wipes and disposable rubber gloves in my size. The cashier looked at me, puzzled. Even a few days ago, a neighbor decried the “terrible psychosis” of the Italians—as if they were just emotional and overreacting, lacking French sangfroid.

This snobbery could have been cut short much earlier. Hospitals in the Grand Est region of France had been seeing a steep rise in the number of people needing urgent care for respiratory problems, but this wasn’t prime-time or front-page news until just a few days ago. In Le Journal du Dimanche this weekend, Eric Caumes, an infectious-disease specialist at a leading Paris hospital where some of the first COVID-19 patients in France were treated, sounded the alarm. “We’re counting hospital beds and respirators, just like in Italy,” he said. “We judged what was happening there with too much arrogance.” In a scathing interview in Le Monde today, Agnès Buzyn, a doctor and the country’s health minister until last month, said she had seen this coming in January, and had even wanted France to postpone the municipal elections it held Sunday. (Stay at home, but also go vote was not great messaging.) “When I left the ministry, I cried because I knew the tsunami wave was headed our way. I left knowing the elections should never take place,” Buzyn said. (She left her post to run for mayor of Paris with Macron’s La République En Marche party, after the previous candidate stepped down because of a sex scandal.)

We are at war. And we are all adjusting. “Remember this is the beginning and everything is new and scary … in a very short time you will get used to the new normal,” a journalist friend who has covered her share of wars wrote to me from London. She had rushed there from France to be near family in case the border closed. After Brexit, conversations among my cohort were so often about which passport would be the best one to have just in case. (“I miss Brexit,” a colleague sighed to me last week.) Now we’re trying to figure out whether flights will still take off from Paris to the U.S., in case things happen that we don’t even really want to imagine.

Now that France has followed Italy and Spain into confinement, some of the best and most buoyant capitals in Europe are all on lockdown: Paris, Rome, and Madrid—and Berlin is rapidly moving toward more isolation. I have friends in all those places, some under medical quarantine. We send one another jokes and meet for video aperitivi. Meanwhile, a friend in China who three weeks ago wrote to me in desperation, asking for book and movie recommendations to survive what was then six weeks of confinement—he could leave his house, just not the city—now tells me that Beijing is starting to come back to life. The Apple Stores and Starbucks are reopening there, just when they’re closing in France. His temperature is taken at the entrance to his apartment complex and to the nearby park. He can get into his office only by scanning a QR code on his phone, which would reveal if he’d left Beijing.

Here in France, the war already has some comic relief. On the radio this morning, a comedian poked fun of Macron’s tough talk. “There will be injuries from people who stepped on Legos,” Charline Vanhoenacker said. “We’ll give the Legion of Honor to people who didn’t lift a finger for months! My neighbor might rat on me for sneaking out to the supermarket.” The streets here don’t feel ominous. There are more people around than I would have expected, and some cars and buses have a few souls inside, sitting far apart. This evening, a few people came to their windows to applaud France’s health-care workers. It wasn’t Italian-style gusto, but it was still a war effort we could all get behind.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

RACHEL DONADIO is a Paris-based contributing writer at The Atlantic, covering politics and culture across Europe.

Source: A Letter From Wartime France


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