(Editor’s note: You can see the latest information about what France and other European countries are doing to stop the coronavirus here.)
As we wait to hear from President Macron tonight, speculation is rife about a total 45-day lockdown of Paris. Pictures of tanks being rolled into the city are circulating on social media, and people are going crazy, buying the shops bare. So far, so expected and reflected in the rest of the world.
Two days ago, however, I arrived back in Paris from a holiday in Cape Town, cutting my stay short as international borders were briskly closing around the world. I wanted to get back home to sit these events out in my apartment with the dog, whereas my husband had to get somewhere else in the world for work, and time was quickly running out.
Welcome to France
On the flight, a person sitting near us coughed constantly, so badly, that a kindly cabin crew came and brought him a mask to cough into. So, we expected to be handed straight from the plane to a quarantine centre, but no.
This is France, after all.
Nothing is too serious to interrupt daily life. We neither had to complete a form telling authorities were we sat on the plane and providing contact details for follow-ups, nor did we have our temperature checked at any point between exiting the plane and exiting the airport. Yes, the airport was emptier than usual, but that was the only clue as to anything being amiss.
Rather sheepishly, I have to admit to being both extremely relieved and rather appalled.
Coming home, I thought I’d better stock up; not only were our cupboards bare after the holiday, but also shops had just been announced to be closing, apart from essentials such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and yes, tobacconists. Alas, my neighbourhood fromager had already shut down. I was not impressed.
Cigarettes over cheese? Really?
The next morning, I was taken aback to find my favourite cafés closed, but otherwise Sunday morning being business as usual. My local market was bustling; the queue for the traditional weekend roast chicken as long and orderly as always; Monoprix doing a good trade in their latest spring collection, and – it being a beautiful sunny day – the parks were solid with people.
The occasional Parisian had a chic scarf draped across their mouth while herding kids across to the carousel, and groups of friends picnicked on the lawns. You even spotted the odd couple isolating themselves on a bench.
You could still argue that people were keeping a distance from others; after all, you had already breathed on your kids and your friends, and might as well continue. And a new shirt could be deemed essential for being locked in the house alone for the coming weeks.
But when I heard that the day before – after gatherings of 100-plus people had been banned – the usual Saturday demonstrations took place, I started to wonder if France was actually taking this seriously enough.
I have always loved and admired the French approach to spurning rules, the rebel-like approach to laws.
The thought that enjoying your daily life was more important to say, not breathing second- hand smoke into other people’s faces while they enjoyed their meal, or, hey, breathing a potentially deadly virus on someone who might just not have the capacity to cope with it sufficiently well to survive.
And I must admit to being of the Keep Calm and Wash your Hands brigade, not being prone to panicking, certainly not about running out of toilet roll, this was a flu-like virus, not gastroenteritis after all.
But, with the world changing by the hour, with life becoming increasingly strange and unknown, and yes, with plenty of people actually dying from what I had previously dismissed as the sniffles – or being not half as serious as the flu (still true, though) – maybe it was time to take this little more seriously.
Tonight, Monday 16 March, we will hear more, and we will probably be asked to stay put in our houses for a few weeks at least. How are the French going to respond? Will they listen, or will this be treated as a mere suggestion rather than a firm rule?
Watch this space.
About the author:
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author, and serial expat. Having lived in seven countries on three continents and two hemispheres, she is currently based in Paris, France.
See more of Ulrike’s work on her website here.
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See more of Ulrike’s dispatches from Paris here.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.