From Confinement to Confusion

Friday, 15 May

When it comes to French history, I should know better than to rely on the internet. I should know to go straight to my friend Diane A-C.

Last entry I sketched the history of the May 1st labour holiday in France but my précis lacked nuance. Here, with my apologies for over-simplification and thanks to Diane for setting the record straight, is the fuller, accurate story that she sent to me:  

“A small correction on the history of May 1st, a pirouette performance at which France excels: it was the Vichy regime in 1941 that officially made the first of May Labour Day (la fête du travail), in complete agreement with the Communist Party, which collaborated zealously until the German-Soviet pact was broken…it was Vichy that imposed the return of the lily-of-the-valley, which at the time of the Revolution was replaced by the red eglantine (wild rose, in honour of Fabre d’Eglantine, to whom we owe the words of the Marseillaise with “the impure blood that waters our furrows…”). Anger, always anger behind the wispy white flower’s little bell.”

History is messy and often so is the present. As we begin our déconfinement from the coronavirus lockdown this week here in France it feels if not chaotic then confused. Choleric the French are and there is much disagreement and strife about everything from which schools should open when to what guidelines will apply to the sacred ssummer holidays.

From Le Parisien,the prime minister Edouard Philippe, emphasis on 'relatif'

The authorities nevertheless always have a plan. In good Cartesian fashion, the country has been divided into three zones: red, yellow and green. The Perche, where we have been holed up for the duration of the confinement, is green, meaning that as of May 11 we could crawl out of our burrow and return to some semblance of normality. On the other hand Paris, where we spend much of our real lives, is red, meaning the city should remain locked down.

Because I am in sore need of a trip to the dentist and we thought it not a bad idea to check that a pipe hadn’t burst or a wire short-circuited during our two-month absence, we returned to the capital for a three-day visit on Wednesday. But was the trip, from green to red zone (and back!), authorised?

Paris bus stop poster: 'Stay home!'

Here's what we understood about the new rules:

- you no longer need to carry a form with date, time and destination, every time you walk out the door.

- you can go out for longer than one-hour and farther than the previous 1 km perimeter. In fact, with a justificatif de domicile (proof of residence) you can stay out as long as you like within a 100 km radius of your home.

This is true across the country. So what, exactly, is the difference between red and green zones?  

Still, off we drove—Tasha, having not set paw in the car for two months, did her best to control her panic—armed with two electricity bills, one for the Perche, one for Paris. Since our residences are 181km apart, we would claim being within 90.5km of one or the other. This interpretation was arguably stretching the rules but we were not stopped, did not even see a police car.  

It is heavenly to be back in our intact flat, which still feels very much like Home. Being able to reach our bedroom without walking outside and through the swallow poo in the barn seems a luxury. Even Tasha scampered here and there with yelps of relieved recognition.

But venturing beyond the front door was another matter. Having grown used to a low microbe environment, even the bourgeois 7ème arrondissement feels rather high-risk. I think Tasha spoke for the three of us when she barked out the window.

Concerned canine

As is so often the case in France, what’s written on paper doesn’t match what happens on the ground. Red zone or not, the traffic is beginning to pick up and shops are opening all over. On two occasions - once at the Canal St Martin and once at the Sacré Coeur - tightly-packed groups of young people partying were disbanded by the police. In our quartier, a moribund pall persists, as if a vital fluid had stopped flowing through the city's veins. Masked pedestrians circulate like bubbles in a glass of cold water.  

The morning walk with Tasha, however, has given me a different perspective. Because the Tuileries are closed, we walk along the almost empty quaysides, where humans are scant and nature is flourishing. Tasha frolics with aplomb in grass not much shorter than it is in the country.

Streetlights have taken on a life of their own.

Next to the pont de Solférino, I photographed a fisherman photographing the catfish he had caught before he threw it back in the Seine. Who knew such giant creatures were living in our midst?

I have some sympathy for the government’s colour blind confusion about our déconfinement. No one knows what path this little understood virus will take, especially when given more freedom. On the other hand humans can't be kept locked down forever. Paris may feel comatose and scary but the air is cleaner and nature is thriving. It would be sad to see these improvements rolled back and maybe they won't, since in the longer term, how attractive will a dense, polluted and infectious urban hub be? I'm certainly scurrying happily back to the country tomorrow.

We are stumbling into very uncertain territory, meaning messy times in the future, as well as in the past and present.