Cracks in the Quarantine

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, a time that  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 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 that they live in now.  Then there's the bragging about methods of tax evasion that can happen at a casual apero 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, from 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, and it was famously preserved by the commanding Nazi general because he was persuaded that the war was lost and Hitler had lost his mind.

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, the French, much as they did during the Occupation, have figured out 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 US 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.  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 .  It is the question that will not go away.  While coastal states have used strict lockdown measures, other states have milder versions, and some states have not locked down at all.  It turns out that state Governors, not the US President, have been the focus of the attention of many of the restless in the United States.

While the $1200 checks that went out eased some of the pain for some people, and some federal business loans and grants backed by the SBA 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:

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% of the people are masked or gloved, and as of Monday it's going to be 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 this Tuesday.  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 this Monday.

The French have mostly kept their heads down for the last eight weeks, but who knows what will happen on Monday, 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 cafes, 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 article originally appeared on The American in Paris.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, where he writes and manages small businesses. He writes on culture, the permanent things, and all things French. You can find his writing online at Front Porch Republic, The Fleming Foundation, The American in Paris, and Medium. You can also chat with him on twitter or instagram: @stephenheiner. Stephen holds a BA in English Literature and minors in Catholic Studies and Business from Rockhurst University. He holds an MBA from Saint Louis University. He also served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve as a Nuclear Biological and Chemical Defense Specialist.