It’s fair to say that France has known better days. The country had nowhere near digested the prospect of its renewed national lockdown – which will start at midnight tonight – when, at around 9am this morning, an Islamist knifeman caused carnage in the cathedral in Nice. Latest reports suggest there were three deaths. One woman was beheaded. Thus a perfect storm of misfortune burst upon the country.
Unfortunately, France’s problem with what Nice mayor, Christian Estrosi, this morning called “Islamo-fascism” is not susceptible to an easily defined solution. On the other hand, President Emmanuel Macron clearly hopes that the coronavirus pandemic might be. As he put it in his 22-minute TV appearance on Wednesday night, it’s all about “applying the brakes brutally”.
The recently imposed curfew across half the country apparently hadn’t been sufficient. New cases were still running at between 40,000 and 50,000 a day – though National Scientific Council president Jean-François Delfraissy reckoned the real numbers were double that, allowing for undiagnosed and asymptomatic cases.
Whence a national lockdown, initially for four weeks – with reassessment after a fortnight. The aim is to bring new cases down to 5000 a day. This puts the kibosh on my birthday celebrations – generally, the only bright spot in the dire month of November. It has also kicked off a bout of panic-buying today – queues at hypermarkets and DIY stores snaked out into the car park around Montpellier this morning. Perhaps more pertinently, and this morning’s surge to the shops aside, lockdown is also not going to do much for the French economy. Estimates of lockdown’s monthly cost range from €12-€15 billion (£11-£13.5 billion).
Granted, the present measures are more supple than those imposed last spring. Factories, building sites and public services will remain open. So will schools – up to, but not including, university level – and retirement homes. Clearly, Mr Macron is sensitive to the problem of the elderly facing the final fractions of their lives unattended by their loved ones. Vital commerce and shops will also continue to function, raising the vexed question of “what’s vital?”.
Tobacconists, markets (open and covered), hypermarkets and building suppliers make it. Barbers and gyms don’t – so that’s two of my younger friends back on the touch. Nor do toyshops – a bitter blow as Christmas approaches. Or bookshops. These latter rely on year-end sales not only because of the approaching festivities but also because right now is when all the literary prizes (Goncourt and the rest) are announced. These generally send readers scurrying into the bookshops. Not this year. The fact that lockdown will blank out Black Friday – the single busiest day in French retail – isn’t helping any.
Or, as a lady called Nathalie, a milliner from Carcassonne, put it to reporters: “It’s a catastrophe for independent shop-keepers. We’re all going to hang, and I’m going to ask the government to supply the rope.” Geoffrey Roux de Bézieux, president of MEDEF, the French CBI, expressed much the same sentiment: “The fact of closing businesses absolutely not responsible for transmitting the illness is an error.”
Owners of cinemas, theatres, cafés and restaurants – also all due to be shut down from tonight – have, as you would expect, taken the news badly. As one in Montpellier said: “We’ve done everything asked of us – social distancing, early closing, hand gel, taking names and contact numbers – and still we’re to close. Everyone knows, anyway, that most contamination happens in the private sphere of family and friends, where anything goes. Half of us, and I’m not joking, are going to go bust.”
The effects of lockdown were exacerbated, said Mr Roux de Bézieux, because retail commerce was already in a bad way. Competition from the internet giants plus the city-centre havoc caused in recent times by both Yellow Vest protestors and those campaigning against pension reform had hit the sector hard. “The new lockdown will have dramatic consequences for retail as the festive season approaches,” said Yohann Petiot of the fashion retailers’ representative body. He was perhaps mindful that even big high street players – including Célio menswear – have announced shop closures.
The further fear is that Mr Macron’s “four weeks” is an absolute minimum. Doctors have been queuing up this morning to tell us that to get case numbers down from 40,000 to 5,000 in a month is going to require something superhuman. It is further said that, in fact, the French government has contingency plans to keep the lockdown going through Christmas and, if need be, to the end of January.
Insiders claim that the president omitted to mention this because he’d seen the street explosions in Italy and, aware that his peuple are so combustible, wanted to avoid sparking social unrest. The worry is that, if anything more than a month were mentioned, the French might go crazy, in line with precedent.
Or, as a government MP put it: “Between fear and fury, we don’t know which way the people will jump.” An MP colleague said he put his trust “in the collective intelligence of the French.”
And this may be justified. Having been out and about today, read the papers, and also listened pretty relentlessly to TV and radio, I hear a lot of annoyance and much despair but nothing which sounds like fighting talk. Frankly, I’ve heard little enough which sounds even like the measured resistance to anti-Covid policies regularly aired in the Telegraph letters page.
Almost everyone I’ve talked to has either had Covid or knows someone who had – which was far from the case last spring. There seemed to be an agreement that things were serious. A typical exchange, in my village bakery, went: “Total lockdown, it’s terrible, way over the top.” “What’s the alternative?” “I don’t know.”
In truth, if I were to sum up the French reaction to lockdown it would be precisely that: “What’s the alternative?” This may be because the French are more used to being bossed about than are the British. They generally accept it for quite a while and then, when it truly has got too much, rise in revolution and wreck the country. I don’t think we’re there yet. But I could be wrong. I have been before.
Meanwhile, business is pinning its hopes on the reassessment of measures in 15 days time. They’re hoping that if pandemic movement is indeed in the right direction, then bars, restaurants and non-essential shops – maybe even places of entertainment – will be able to re-open.
It’s a long shot. For the time being, we’re all once again going to have to carry a certificate each time we leave home detailing the reason we’ve escaped: essential shopping, medical and judicial appointments, serious family reasons – and that’s about your lot. Otherwise, it’s a £122 fine. You may also exercise, but for no more than an hour and no further than a kilometre from home.
Working from home will again be de rigueur for all those for whom it’s feasible, and the depressing prospect of video aperitifs – drinks with people with whom you’re connected by screen – raises its head. Maybe the only good news is that supplies of all necessities are apparently assured in the supermarkets.
Traditionally in times of potential trouble, the French go for, above all else, pasta. Fortunately, there’s no shortage this time around. “We have the stocks,” said Xavier Riescher, president of Panzani. One must take comfort where one can.