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We all break lockdown in France Swerving the Covid rules has become the new national sport

The Gendarmes demand 'attestation' forms from people who dare leave the house. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

The Gendarmes demand 'attestation' forms from people who dare leave the house. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images


November 30, 2020   5 mins

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 gßtes 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 trouvĂ©…”, 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 DĂ©placement DĂ©rogatoire.

Truly, the French love paperwork: the next-door neighbours in Belgium call it “l’exotisime administratif Ă  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, BĂ©atrice DaugĂ© — who, tired of being “fleeced” by the government’s anti-business Covid regulations, decided to pose online nude, declaring “je prĂ©fĂšre le faire moi mĂȘme.” (I prefer to do it myself.) Her campaign to protect tradespeople (#artisanapoil) has gone national. Viral, even. Jean Charles GĂ©rard, 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”.


John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.

JLewisStempel

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Simon Mason
Simon Mason
3 years ago

The French love rules, and they love paperwork to outline the rules, but the one thing they love even more is exceptions to the rules.

I live in a very rural hamlet in Creuse (central France), where the Chasse (hunt) is a big deal. This has continued unabated since lockdown started, as one of the many exceptions to the lockdown is the essential hunting of vermin. Suddenly every chasseur is engaged in this essential activity … but only on Saturdays.

Vive La France!

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Mason

You are so right about loving exceptions to the rules. The verbal precursor to the exception is “en principe” and “normalement”. Vive le systÚme D !

Stanley Beardshall
Stanley Beardshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Howard Gleave

Nice one, Howard! We have lived here for 30 years and learned early that an artisan, when asked when his quote will be sent, replies”Normalement la semaine prochaine” which means possibly this month. Once tbe devis is accepted he will tell you that work will begin “En principe, vers la fin du mois” meaning possibly this year.

nick harman
nick harman
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Mason

No one screws with the local Chasse. Ever.

CL van Beek
CL van Beek
3 years ago

Thanks for the article, if this is the spirit of the French people, than I love them. In comparison, (most of) the Dutch in my country are cowards.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago
Reply to  CL van Beek

Van Beek and also a dutchie?….hmmmmm…:)

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
3 years ago
Reply to  CL van Beek

CL@ trust me, when it comes to cowardice, the French are in the top of the pile.
According to a survey, 70 % of them want a tighter lockdown. My neighbours clean the door handle, the one living on my floor, comes out of his apartment to see if I am wearing a mask ( of course I don’t ) and how it is I am constantly going outside ( because I would go nuts if I didn’t).
Frankly it baffles me that you foreigners would want to live in a country that is basically …..on the brink.
I fled this lockdown and went to Austria……who a couple of days after I’d arrived, also went into full lockdown…….No limit to how far I can go away from my place, we are even encouraged to go out into the fresh air to….and I quote….look after our physical and mental health. And I bloody do…..hiking and dirt biking the mountain…….sleeping my 9 hours and feeling content……all the while, my fellow countrymen pop psycho pills like m & m ‘S because they are simply losing it.
Still……they want more of this lockdown………
This country is just a padded cell and its government made of cynical twits who seem to enjoy the way they treat their people.
Suicides have gone up the roof, domestic violence, divorces ……Los of jobs……and the author mentions, businesses closed for ever.
I spent the first lockdown in Sweden and now in Austria ……….France is just a dump.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

A very entertaining article.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And gives a true flavour of the French, I think.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

The first rule of rules is that they must make sense. Lockdowns are predicated on purely arbitrary measures than can have their own degree of harm, and since they don’t make sense, people will ignore them. I suspect the US is headed toward a round of civil disobedience, too, to pushback against the sometimes-draconian measures pushed by governors who then do the opposite of what they preach.

Sidney Eschenbach
Sidney Eschenbach
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Alex, see my post above for a fuller explanation, but the daily case rate has gone from climbing through 50,000 and topping at 86,000… to a low 4,800 and average now around 9000. It does work. It does make sense. Are they arbitrary regarding their particularities place to place and country to country. Yes. But here, people are not ignoring it. Like everywhere, they stretch the rules. So what. The goal has been achieved, very quickly, and virtually painlessly.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

The daily case rate has gone up because the case rate for respiratory viruses always goes up when the weather turns colder. This increase was wholly predictable, not shocking.

The goal has been achieved, very quickly, and virtually painlessly.
The millions forced into unemployment, those concerned about rents and mortgages, the business owners struggling to make do with capacity restrictions, etc etc, may disagree with you. All of which ignores that the whole point of lockdowns is to spread infections over a longer time, not to prevent them.

Sidney Eschenbach
Sidney Eschenbach
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Ok… so to your first point, why does the case rate go up when the weather turns colder? Could it be because when people are indoors the rate of reinfection goes up? Gee… who knew. However, in spite of that, while it’s definitely getting colder here in France, THE CASE RATE HAS FALLEN 95%. You think that’s luck, as Bruno, above, appears to believe? It’s the lockdown.

Re your second point, in a civilized society where the vast majority of people follow the rules and they have decent leadership, it’s very easy to organize a lockdown that includes financial supports for affected businesses. That’s what’s happening here, instead of the US model, where there is no leadership, great division leading massive non-compliance… and the financial support that was used unfortunately has now expired because of the above; poor leadership and non-compliance. Just throwing good money away.

Lastly, as shown in China and New Zealand and Australia, the point of the lockdown is to ELIMINATE the virus. You only hope for slow-down when compliance is partial… and we have the US as a prime example.

japeake
japeake
3 years ago

eh ben, non. https://capx.co/competent-g

Colin Macdonald
Colin Macdonald
3 years ago

You might eliminate it in NZ because it’s more isolated than Spitzbergen. And Oz is just going into Summer, their respiratory bug season is done. I suspect Argentina thought they were well on the way to elimination back in April… They were admiring articles in the Guardian about it, their mortality rate has now exceeded that of Brazil. As Anders Tegnel said back in March “You can’t stop this”.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
3 years ago

“virtually painlessly”. Words of similar effect spoken by those whose lives have not been affected financially by these draconian measures.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

France is not the only country fed up with restrictions!

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

I never thought I’d say this, but France is saying what we’re all thinking!

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

Brilliant, this article is good news, let Macron and the lunatics that surround him go f* themselves

nick harman
nick harman
3 years ago

I live part of my time in the Charente too, close to the Vichy line. The French are very poor in this dept, apparently young people are leaving as soon as they are able as there is so little work or prospect of work,

They are a tough lot, many like voting NF, but they do seem obsessed with masks, I saw one local driving his tractor wearing one. I fear the message about protecting others has not got through.

Most bars had gone bust long before Covid came along, it’s certainly not helping the few still left.

It’s grim,

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
3 years ago
Reply to  nick harman

First post making sense in this load of dribble.

Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels
3 years ago

What else would you expect from a people who light up under every no smoking sign they can find as a big F you to the authorities who put them up..

Damien D
Damien D
3 years ago

Nice brochette of anglo-saxon expat clichés here sir

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
3 years ago

The Italians are the same. They find some clever and inventive ways around the stumbling blocks… necessity is the mother of invention. The British do it too – while maintaining the outward appearance of conformity. They don’t quite celebrate it in the way the French & Italians do with a smile and a wink… In France and Italy, the neighbours are much less of a danger.

Bill Ballner
Bill Ballner
3 years ago

Let’s all just appreciate the hashtag #artisanapoil

Sol Windrose
Sol Windrose
3 years ago

Not nearly as entertaining as the article above, however there is some speaking out in the U.S. as evidenced in this Newsweek article: “Over 6,000 Scientists Sign ‘Anti-Lockdown’ Petition Saying It’s Causing ‘Irreparable Damage” By Matthew Impelli On 10/7/20

https://preview.tinyurl.com… (goes to Newsweek)

Dry reading, though points are clearly made.

In the United States, laws are collected from each state and organized in U.S. Code. However muddy, we love rules too! While link hopping between sections of U.S. Code, I found a thought provoking read from the United Nations regarding Human Capital.

https://unstats.un.org/unsd

Still reading, though a big picture is appearing in which those of us who are unable, or do not care, to maintain good health are less than worthy commodities in the realm of Human Capital as discussed in the pdf document linked above. That is not a direct statement, rather the impression left. Sharing this here because I am wondering what others think, specific to COVID19 lockdowns.

Allez l’équipe? (courtesy of Google Translate)

Sidney Eschenbach
Sidney Eschenbach
3 years ago

Hmmm… yes, a nice anecdote, but what M. Lewis-Stempel forgets in the midst of his tale is that at the time Macron announced the lockdown, the number of daily covid cases in France was climbing nearly vertically, topping out 10 days later at an astronomical 88,790 cases in one day. To put that number in perspective, that per capita rate would equal approximately 440,000 cases per day in the US, nearly 21/2 times higher than anything yet seen in the ‘out of control’ US. Since that date, Nov. 7, and obviously due to the ‘lockdown’, there has been a very steep fall in cases, now averaging about 10,000 cases per day and falling.

So, while it’s certainly true that this lockdown isn’t nearly as severe as the spring lockdown was… it’s working as well or better. In spite of the authors story of the sport of defiance due to the unbreakable and unbending will of the French people and their resistance to change, my own view, also as a resident of France, that they are, stretching the rules or not, honoring the spirit if not the precise letter of the lockdown. Yes, they go farther than allowed. Yes, they move generally at will through their towns and regions. However… and again… IT’S WORKING!

The data is in, and it is compelling to not say overwhelming. The lockdown works, and it works because while we do go generally where we like when we like, we don’t go to the social mixing businesses, the bars, the night clubs, the coffee shops and the restaurants… because they’re closed. We all wear masks when out of our homes… and those two things make all the difference. Schools open, nearly all businesses open.

Due respect to the author, but I’m sure that M. Macron knows the French better than most… and designed the system to succeed precisely by taking into account the human condition of French culture. Say what you will, but there is no French equivalent of the Trumpist conspiratorial anti-vax anti-mask stolen-election sub-culture found in the US. They may, like all peoples, demonstrate their petty resistance to authorities… but the results of the lockdown say that the great swath of France is rational and understands and honors the spirit of the laws as they come down.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
3 years ago

Lockdown works ? What a laugh. The Marseilles Marins Pompiers as the fire fighters are called there, analysed the sewage waters. The amount of virus was already heading south just at the start of the lockdown.
An epidemic runs a course of its own and lockdown or not doesn’t change that. Good scientists are honest enough to tell that even they do not understand why it is so…..but it is.
SARS was a good example….it came…..and just went …
I witnessed the Swedish lockdown in the spring. I was there 3 months……the beauty of it is they have done all along what the stupid French government seems to discover today after having made people totally crazy and sent the economy into a deadly spin.

Sidney Eschenbach
Sidney Eschenbach
3 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Well, it’s always good to know the recent results are just the result of a lucky guess by Macron, hey? They do say it’s better to be lucky than smart. Or, Bruno, as another idiot once said, “One day it’ll just disappear.” … but that was 250,000 US covid deaths ago.

Meanwhile, this about your Marseilles pompiers: “The (national) testing network, named Obepine, should be operational through France and able to provide national data by mid-December. For now, it has confirmed it’s records show an improvement in the health situation since confinement”… in other words, exactly what one would have expected to find, and not at all what you allege. But then, you probably don’t even believe that 267,000 have died of Covid in the US, right? It’s all a vast conspiracy….and the proof is that there’s no proof. That’s how good they are!!

As to why it disappears? Actually, what good scientists will tell you that it ONLY disappears when it can no longer reinfect, either due to herd immunity or isolation, as in the case of SARS. Any organism that doesn’t reproduce, dies. That’s they way they stop it all over the world. That’s how China shuts it down… but you, despite the facts, prefer to think lockdowns don’t work. You, Bruno, are the problem.

tiffeyekno
tiffeyekno
3 years ago

Thank you Sidney for your calm rebuttal of the le penseur Bruno who thinks France is a dump. Perhaps, when his triumphant 2020 European Tour is over he will return to France and enjoy the less than perfect but essentially egalitarian country and see that, like all countries, the economy has suffered but that people have not gone ‘totally crazy’. .

japeake
japeake
3 years ago

It’s far too early to say conclusively that the lockdown is working, and to say that it’s passed virtually painlessly as you do in your above comment is incorrect.

(par exemple : https://www.lemonde.fr/plan

or : https://www.rtve.es/noticia… )

There certainly is an equivalent to the sub-culture you have mentioned, just not American in style.

Has been noted since last June (2019) that the French are perhaps the most anti-vaxx in the world. And has been noted again more recently that the french are the most anti-vax in europe, a trend particularly pronounced amongst the youth.

( here: https://www.latribune.fr/ec
and here: https://www.lequotidiendume… )

This would certainly fit in with an anti-multinational, pro-organically sourced culture surrounding agriculture and cosmetics – the existence of which can’t be denied. With the Yellow Vests and les intégristes to boot. Whether they are THE most, I wouldn’t hold to that but this is far from the ‘rational’ France you portray.

Fact is no one strategy has clearly worked: countries with severe lockdown’s have suffered equally as badly as those without. Question seems to be more of competent governance. For the most part Western Europe has fared terribly.

Other readings :

https://www.nejm.org/doi/fu
https://capx.co/competent-g