November 30, 2020

As soon as Macron appeared on TV to declare the new Covid-19 measures, I knew we were in trouble. Manu suffers from what poker players call a “tell”: an unconscious physical gesture that betrays the working of the mind. With President Macron it is the hands: he makes an Eiffel Tower of his fingers when stressed. When the tower of digits tumbled I said, “Full lockdown.”

Full lockdown it was. The works. An hour max outside per day for physical exercise, no more than 1km from your residence. All non-essential businesses closed (although schools, this time round, remain open, as do factories and some public services), until 1 December, at least. And back to carrying an attestation — a signed, date, timed form declaring the reason for leaving the house. The accepted reasons, as with the first confinement in Spring, are limited to buying essential goods, attending medical appointments, aiding the needy, going to work.

This was the evening of Wednesday, 28 October; confinement was to begin on the stroke of midnight, the next day. So Parisians were granted a whole 30 hours to flee the arrondissements for the country. Flee they did. Traffic jams around Paris stretched for a cumulative 730km.

Some Parisians from the exodus have ended up in our remote Charente village of La Roche (population 185), renting the gîtes the community owns to aid the coffers. The Parisians are easy to spot: they blink like moles in the daylight, and go jogging and walking in sportswear from North Face or Ruckfield. Locals going for a walk in the woods dress in gear from the Decathlon megastore in Niort.

Anyway, the Parisians have fled their diseased city for a place with not a single case. And they have dumped their dogs.

The French hold the European record for abandoning dogs (about 100,000 canines a year), the peak times being holidays, because no one wants to pay for kennels. Or vets. So I was not entirely surprised when I opened the front gate on the Friday morning that began confinement to find a bedraggled, aged, arthritic golden Labrador sitting there. With more hope than expectation, I looked up and down the stony track for its owner. Nobody.

After a family conference, we put the dog in the back of the car, and took it to the vet. After all, French dogs are meant to have microchips to track ownership. It is the law. Also, all French dogs are obliged to be registered with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and to possess an ID card, the “Carte d’Indentification de Mon Animal”.

The vet scanned for microchips, checked for ID tattoos. Nothing. We agreed to divide out notification of abandonment to the local mairies and gendarmeries. Back at home in the afternoon rain, I walked off with a photo of the dog to ask Phillipe, the farmer next door, if he could identify her. From the vantage point of his tractor cab he sees and knows everything in the village. Our own travelling Delphic Oracle. As it happens, he was walking the other way on the track, submerged inside his green Quechua cape (from Decathlon), about to check his sheep.

Nous avons trouvé…”, I began, showing him the limp A4 picture of the Labrador.

“Yes, I saw her in your courtyard,” he said. “I also saw a car in the forest in the morning. 75 plates.” Paris plates.

In France, there are laws about everything, including dog abandonment. Any dog unclaimed after eight days is free to be rehomed. So we have now officially adopted the dog, and christened her Honey. “Hi Honey,” we say to her, “you are now home.” Honey gives me a cast iron reason to leave the house, since buying fournitures necessaires is the second tickable box on the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire.

Truly, the French love paperwork: the next-door neighbours in Belgium call it “l’exotisime administratif à la francaise”. Is there another country in Covid Europe where you have to carry a piece of paper, a sworn affadavit, explaining why you are out and about? There are even special Attestations for school parents, and business people.

Honey is a fussy eater, so I am required to experiment with dog food, each taste-test requiring a trip to town for its purchase. A cynic would say I am exhibiting an essential Gallic skill, The Art of Obviating the Rules. This week Sud Ouest, the regional newspaper, asked, “Et vous, le confinement, vous le respectez?” The answer is “Non”. Not second time around. 60% of the French now fictionalise their Attestation to escape the house. 10% are off on “dates”. (Ah, l’amour.)

Anyway, the rules of “l’acte 2 du confinement” make no sense. Try this, in the nation of reason, of Voltaire and of Montesquieu: in our local branch of Intermarché one cannot buy socks (non-essential), these being closed-off behind red-and-white tape, but one can freely access the tower of Ferrero Rocher (essential). You can go to a beach, but you cannot surf. Pfff.

I bought my copy of Sud Ouest from the Maison de la Presse in town. This is a small town in deep France which has already taken a hit from Covid. The bistro, which opened proudly with a sign declaring it family owned “depuis 2017” is now closed. For ever. The gentleman’s barbershop, 60 years old, is shut. For ever.

But the Bar-Tabac, in a very French way, has found a way around the rules of non-consumption on the premises. The owner suggests “vouz emportez les boissons”. So now we take away our drinks to the pavement outside, and stand around, talking. Particularly when the English fish-and-chip van comes on Wednesdays.

Full marks for imagination also to the Jarnac photographer, Béatrice Daugé — who, tired of being “fleeced” by the government’s anti-business Covid regulations, decided to pose online nude, declaring “je préfère le faire moi même.” (I prefer to do it myself.) Her campaign to protect tradespeople (#artisanapoil) has gone national. Viral, even. Jean Charles Gérard, a hairdresser from Havres in Seine-Maritime, sat starkers for his protest in a “torture garden”, as symbolic an image as it was attention-grabbing.

One hopes #artisanapoil is a viral bug Jean Castex might catch. Monsieur Castex is Macron’s new prime minister; he got the job in July because, to be scientifically precise, he is a jobsworth. (I, and most of France, suffer a strange longing for the previous prime minister, Édouard Philippe; alas Philippe was too suave, too pensant — too stellar by half — for Macron. One of Macron’s nicknames is Jupiter, and he does not like stars in his orbit. So Philippe is relegated to the outer universe, i.e. the mayoralty of Le Havre.)

I have digressed: on 12 November the lugubrious, lockdown-loving Castex confirmed Confinement II to last until the first day of advent, but suggested that shops might (might!) open thereafter. But not bars or restaurants. Attestations to remain. Even beyond 1 December.

A nation shrugged its collective shoulders. As the police admit, attestations have become unpoliceable. There are simply too many attestation-breakers and lax observers. The derogation for work is effectively a get-out-of-the-house-card for free. At a police road-control in the Landes departement, only seven people, out of 952 checked, had “non-justifiable” reasons to be away from their residence. Les flics have managed one noticeable clampdown success, though. In Toulouse this week the police broke up a private party organised by… the police.

Avoiding the Covid rules has, says Sud Ouest, become “le nouveau sport national”. In such small phrases one understands why the French were occupied by the Nazis 1940-1944, but never conquered by them. The French are the French. Good luck to anyone who tries pushing them around, including Islamic terrorists. The beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his class, and the knife attack in the Nice Notre-Dame basilica, has not shaken the resolve of the French to defend the values of the Republic, including free expression. “We will not yield anything,” declared Macron, for once in touch with the people of Planet France.

In our village there is, at the crossroads, a memorial to the local men “Mort pour la France” in the Algerian War. Every Remembrance Day the memorial, a marble mini-menhir, is honoured with a tricolour and pot of chrysanthemums, the French flower of mourning. This year, the memorial had two flags, and three pots of chrysanths.

Our village, like Macron, has a “tell”.