Lifestyle & Culture

Stephen Heiner in Paris: Cracks in the quarantine as Parisians were paid to behave

(Editor’s note: France began lifting its coronavirus quarantine on Monday, 11 May after an eight-week lockdown.)

Two weekends ago the weather was particularly lovely and while I was out for a Sunday stroll in my neighborhood, what I had already been sensing over the previous weeks became crystal clear: Many Parisians were not abiding by the draconian rules of quarantine that had been laid down in March, which almost seems like another lifetime ago now.

The French have received some favorable press abroad and even from the French Prime Minister for being generally “well behaved” during the lockdown, but there’s a good reason for that: They’ve been paid off.

Not disciplined normally

The French are not scrupulous rule-followers. At all. I know, I’ve lived here with them for years now. If you want rule followers all you need to do is cross the border into Germany where people will wait on an empty street in the pouring rain rather than cross it without a proper traffic signal.

 Three of the four landlords I’ve had in my time in France have either wanted to be paid in cash or wanted me to conceal that I was paying rent (and hence avoid the taxes) by telling me not to put anything in the memo section of the monthly bank transfer.

 I know at least half a dozen people who have used someone else’s payslip in order to qualify for the apartment they live in now.

Then there’s the bragging about methods of tax evasion that can happen at a casual apéro during the week or when you are on vacation in Provence. Did the French suddenly become rule-followers and acolytes of the government because of a viral scare, just weeks after a transportation strike that ruined Christmas and New Year’s plans for the entire country?  

Non.

What the French did get, due to the systems and mechanisms in place, is money, and lots of it. In almost every field the French were paid off so that they were not losing money at the rate that businesses in many other countries have been. Those who needed additional aid had ways to apply for it, right down to small business owners like myself, as I wrote about earlier this week.  

When you’re being paid to stay home, you can still get fresh bread, tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets and food, all while your high speed internet is working, why fight?

Like the Occupation

It hasn’t even been 100 years since the Occupation of France during World War II, and while President Macron has famously evoked the term “war” to refer to what is going on in France and throughout the world, the reality is that the last war wasn’t really that rough on the capital. It was famously preserved by the commanding Nazi general because he was persuaded that the war was lost and Hitler had lost his mind. (To learn more check out “Is Paris Burning?” and the film of the same name).

So too, life hasn’t really been that bad under the virtual house arrest we have been under for the last eight weeks. Yes, we have to print out a humorous attestation in which we give permission to ourselves to be out for whatever reason, but we have had access to food, shelter and information.

Our borders are closed and you must have permission to travel even inside the country.  Such restrictions over such a relatively short period as eight weeks is not the stuff of which revolutions are made (despite the fact that there have been a dozen forms of government in France since 1789).

More importantly, just like during the Occupation, the French have figured out the ways around the laws. After the stings of fines in early weeks, Parisians have figured out when and where the police are patrolling and how to make sure they have a plausible story if caught.  

More than a million fines have been handed out during the last eight weeks so you can reasonably guess that at least double that number were not caught by the police, which means there are literally millions of people in France not obeying the law (if you want to read some of the more creative excuses given to the police, “The Local” collected them in this article), so please, don’t tell me about how much the French are “respecting the quarantine.”

Different in America

While many are eager to exploit the current explosive and divisive politics of America to point out how “wrong” the U.S. is getting public policy, I can only hope it has been an instructive civics lesson for those who are less familiar with how the United States has been governed since 1789 (when it tried out its third form of government, which is the one that still prevails).  While many thought the “states’ rights” question was answered in 1865, many more have started to see that this issue has always been the central question of how the US is governed (and indeed, is the intellectual framework of its founding).

It is the question that will not go away. So you have coastal states that have used strict lockdown measures, other states that have milder forms of it, and some states that have not locked down at all, along with lawsuits against governors, with more to come under the aegis of the Department of Justice. It turns out that state governors, not the U.S. president, has been the focus of the attention of many of the restless Americans.

While the $1,200 checks that went out eased some of the pain for some people, and some federal business loans and grants backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration helped some business owners, the United States is a large and sprawling country with hundreds of millions of inhabitants.

The health care system is famously broken in many ways and even with plenty of advance notice could not have done anything like what Germany has been doing or France is planning in terms of mass testing. Yet, even as heralded as France’s health care system is, there has been no system of testing, and as such the lockdown was simply a time-buying measure.

Things are different in America for many reasons, not just because of one man, no matter how much the media would like us to believe otherwise.

You probably had it

Several of my friends who, like me, were traveling in December and January, suspect that we might have had the virus already, but are asymptomatic. We have 27 million visitors to Paris each year, and at least one third of them are Chinese. Is it likely that one of those millions brought the disease to France as early as December, that it has spread through the population, and that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, already have the disease and are asymptomatic?  

Yes, quite. But we won’t know until we test, and as we prepare to open up next week, I suspect that this upcoming weekend will have scenes like we saw just two weeks ago:

Le 18ème vient officiellement de s’auto-déconfiner (et il aimerait qu’on le laisse danser). pic.twitter.com/xXkkRJ490w — Corentin Chrétien-Droz (@CocoChrist) April 25, 2020

This video (featuring a Dalida song – Laissez-moi danser – released the year I was born), viewed almost 8 million times now, was of an impromptu dance party in Montmartre which the police came to break up but gave fines to absolutely no one. It’s technically not illegal to dance on the street to music coming from someone’s apartment, and many people were observing some kind of social distancing.  

Six weeks in, the police have learned which battles to fight and which to pretend they don’t see.

A story I tell along these lines was from Fete de la Musique in 2014 or 2015 when I was lounging in the lazy afternoon sun in Place des Vosges with some friends and one of the park guardians came up to let me know that alcohol could not be consumed inside this park. But he said it in such a friendly way that I suspected that if I reached for a paper bag and put the bottle inside, he would consider his duty done. I did precisely that and he smiled and said, “Merci” and walked off.

As I stroll around on Sundays there are groups of friends standing and talking in the sunshine, clearly ignoring the rule that they are not supposed to meet friends (or are we to believe that they all coincidentally came to the same spot in the sunshine?). Others are a bit more covert: I saw three young men gathered around a car, all with takeaway food and while one sat in the passenger seat the other two stood next to him outside of the car, ostensibly so that if the police did come, they could say they were just eating some takeaway that had gotten and were getting ready to drive off.

As far as masks go, it’s a pretty even split outside, though inside the metro I’ve observed 75 percent of the people are masked or gloved, and as of 11 May it’s required if you want to use public transportation, though how so-called “social distancing” will be enforced at rush hour is less clear. I’ll have to wear one for my (already scheduled) haircut today. My barber is talented enough to work around the ear straps (though I suspect they will be removed at a certain point during the haircut) and she’ll have plenty of practice for all the willing Samsons that will be lining up starting first thing as the quarantine ends.

The French have mostly kept their heads down for the last eight weeks, but who knows what will happen now, when for the first time we will be permitted to be outside of our homes without our “papers”? I’ve stopped predicting anything in these times, but I do know that without our restaurants and cafés, which are a core part of life here in France and not slated to be opened until June at the earliest, this will be the oddest May that has occurred in France in centuries.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

This post originally appeared on The American in Paris and Medium. It’s reposted here with the permission of the author.

About the author:

Singaporean-born American Stephen Heiner has been living in Paris since 2013, what he hopes to be a permanent home after living in Asia and the United States for most of his life. While he has an undergraduate degree in literature, he also has an MBA, and he’s very much the man who enjoys studying financial statements as much as he enjoys reading essays by G.K. Chesterton or James Howard Kuntsler.

He visits his family in the US and Singapore each year, but in the meantime enjoys his dream city, which he finally had a chance to move to after selling a company he built over a number of years. 

You can find him on twitter and instagram @stephenheiner.

You can also follow his immigration journey on www.theamericaninparis.com, where Stephen also offers consulting to those interested in relocating to, and/or making a life in, France.

See more of Stephen’s posts on Dispatches here.

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