Nobody talks in rural France anymore. We just shuffle silently to our cars, or around Intermarché, where the check-out staff, as well as wearing latex gloves and masks, stand behind the sort of glass screens you get in banks. Should you encounter, by chance, a neighbour, you wave from a distance along the aisle. Assuming, that is, they do not flee. Assuming, too, that you recognise them behind their home-made mask.
Paranoia regarding la peste is palpable. Life here becomes a little less normal each and every day. Yesterday — or was it the day before? I have lost track of time — M. Jacques, who runs the tabac in the local town, installed a one-way system, improvised from the tables no-one is allowed to sit at anymore. His grey-faced coughing, though, I believe is the consequence of Camels not Covid-19.
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I don’t smoke, or at least I didn’t, but I’ve taken to puffing at cigars in desperation at the ennui of house arrest since Macron addressed the nation to announce, “Nous somme en guerre!” Channelling Napoleon (complete with widow’s-peak hair), he then shut down the entire country with four hours notice to the strains of La Marseillaise. Was that the 17th March? I have lost track of time.
Anyway, until Napoleon Macron’s declaration we in France profonde had been blissfully blasé about coronavirus. After his orotundity on TV there was panic buying at our local Inter. The French plundered the demi-sel butter. The bit of shelf reserved for ‘Nos Amis, Les Anglais’ was stripped of Heinz baked beans.
Going shopping, for the essentials of food, newspapers, tobacco — for one hour only — is one of the few reasons you are allowed out of the house under Macron’s confinement measures, and then you have to carry an ‘Attestation‘ document on your person, signed and timed. Infringement is punishable by a rising scale of fines. After that, clink. Mais, quelle difference? We are imprisoned anyway.
In the local town, Le Neuf bistro is closed; also the new bar, the post office, Credit Mutuel bank — everything. Even the hairdressers. French women spend a lot of time at the coiffeuse. One index of our deteriorating standard of life is the abundance of self-dyed hair. You start to notice the little things. There is not much else to do.
The day before President Macron impersonated Le Petit Caporal, we had a meeting of our village’s ‘Foyer Rurale’, a national association to promote social and cultural life in the French sticks. My wife and I are on the committee. We laughed at the notion of doing ‘le bump’ elbow greeting, we enjoyed our usual wine and cake, and agreed a whole calendar of events for the village: Le Printemp des Poètes (performance of our own poems, this year on the theme of ‘Courage’), the Easter egg-hunt pour les enfants, the charabanc trip to the zoo, the communal meal. My wife was to speak to Father Bernard about a blessing for animals. All now cancelled. All.
And we worry: when the Covid lockdown is over, will we have the heart to restart? In shutting down France, is Macron killing our spirit? Will we still shake hands, kiss both cheeks? And always, with politesse, say ‘bonjour’ to strangers, whether it’s in the GP’s waiting room, the boulangerie, the pharmacy. Anywhere.
What I do know, is this: it is going to be a long war. We are already on #ConfinementJour32 (I am almost certain it is day 32). On Monday Macron addressed the nation again. Starey-eyed, he informed us that the lockdown will begin to be lifted on May 11th. Bonne nouvelle! Then he wielded the baguette: only if we remain in our houses in the interim. Still, chapeau to Manu, he knows his power-base: among the first enterprises to be freed from restrictions will be hairdressers.
There is no escape. Almost all public transport has ceased. Should you have the audacity to venture out in your car — a literal guilt trip — the gendarmes, with their guns and Thunderbird hats, patrol the roundabouts, market squares, and motorway tolls to catch the non-observers of Code Macron. So far les flics have made over 4 million checks. Last weekend, our department, the Charente, deployed an extra 630 gendarmes to ensure obeisance. Thinking of sneaking out via the Charente river? No go. It is now patrolled. So too the sky.
But it is the absence of conversation that is killing countryside France, where on meeting your neighbours you automatically, sincerely ask ‘Ca va?’ With our friends in the village it is ‘Bisou! Bisou!‘ If it is Jean-Rene then a parsing of Stade Rochelais‘s latest performance ensues (rugby in SW France is a fundamentalist religion), if it is Martine then matters epicurean. I haven’t seen them for days. The little village of La Roche is silent and shuttered-up.
The one rebel in La Roche is old Madame Oradou, who stumps around the village crab-backed with her stick. She called last week to ask if our horses would enjoy eating the long grass in her potager. (This was a typical village act of kindness.) She was venomous about the President. “Macron,” she spat. “What does he know about the war! He was too young, heh? I was alive then.” She waved her stick airily towards Paris. “This is just flu!”
In truth, I agree with her. However, I would never utter this dissenting opinion in public, even if I could find someone to say it to. Covid-19 regulations, as well as being enforced by the gendarmes, the Police Nationale, the Police Municipale, the CRS (France has a plethora of police forces) are rigorously enforced by the ‘public spirited’. Recently in Intermarché one of the cashiers screamed at a customer, “Respectez la distance de sécurité, monsieur!” A man had, by no more than a centimetre, overstepped the black line on the floor which keeps us one metre apart.
I am uneasy about this self-isolation of my own views. Does this make me an accomplice in Macron’s draconian scheme? A collaborator? (A very French dilemma, non?) Does confinement corrode the soul, as well as society?
Theoretically, my house arrest should make zero difference to my work. I work from home. I am an agriculteur, who splits the job between the UK and France. I am here in La Roche to plant lavender and thyme, which is what grows best on the Charente chalk escarpment.
Except the nursery cannot deliver the lavender. Neither the thyme.
Once, it was in another age, I wrote a book about British PoWs in the Great War. In a cosmic joke I now find myself combatting boredom by the same means as the incarcerated Tommies of 1914-18: smoking, obsessive gardening, endless reading, usually of a morbid sort — a taste, it seems, shared by many across France. La Journal du Dimanche’s reading list for these strange days is headed by Camus’ The Plague.
In my really dark moments I ponder whether Covid-19 is a mass enactment by French citizenry of J-P Sartre’s Existentialist drama Huis Clos, No Exit. You know, his play with the line, “Hell is other people.”
This morning — or was it this afternoon? I have lost track of time — our Border Terrier shape-shifted through a gap in the courtyard gate to bark at somebody on the lane. I rushed out to find our friends Claudette and Donni going past, on their way to the forest for a walk — exercise, as with all prison regimes, being an allowed daily activity. For an hour. But no more than a kilometre from chez vous.
“Desolé!” I apologised on behalf of the yapper. “Pas grave, John” they said, smiling. But they did not stop to talk.
Neither did I.
John Lewis-Stempel’s books include The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British Prisoners of War, 1914-18