Paris' new normal is less grouchy than you’d expect
In its third lockdown, Parisians are reading, biking, and even behaving like tourists in their own city
What is the new normal here in Paris? The answer is one that’s less grouchy than you might expect. Mais ça commence à bien faire — it’s getting a little much.
We’re more than a year out from #TheMoment, March 17, when the first lockdown in France began. At that crossroads where countries made different political decisions, France chose to put health first.
Now, as we settle into a third lockdown, to encounter someone without a mask in the street is startling. Every few streets or so, outside every pharmacy, there are little collapsible huts where people can get a rapid antigenic test. It’s also easy to get PCR tests, which are carried out in labs. All Covid-19 tests are free, and people are encouraged to get tested if they have the slightest doubt of infection.
After a very slow start, France is speeding up its vaccination campaign. Now besides vaccination centres, pharmacies and doctors can administer the AstraZeneca jab and will soon be able to do the same with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. At first, a sizeable portion of the population was resistant to being vaccinated. Then, when vaccine supplies were slow to arrive in the European Union, the joke was that the contrarian French suddenly all wanted to be vaccinated. Public figures were vaccinated publicly to encourage those who were reticent. Such moments of levity are important in a country where we haven’t been able to go to a bar or restaurant since October, and probably won’t be able to until May.
Because France is part of the EU, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to our neighbours. France’s first lockdown of nearly two months was one of Europe’s strictest, and we had a second lockdown which lasted a month and a half in the fall. We have been wearing masks any time we leave the house since July 20, and have undergone two successive curfews.
Now, 19 out of 101 French departments, including the Paris region, have locked down for a third time, due to the British variant which accounts for three-quarters of the new cases. As the EU and the United Kingdom spar over vaccine doses, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is in discussions as to whether France should join their “red list” from which travel into the UK is banned — “Now that they’ve given us their variant,” sniped my neighbour. On the bright side, we did gain one hour this time around: curfew begins at 7pm.
Surprisingly the French have been quite reasonable on the whole, compared to some of their neighbours, from Belgium to Austria, who have staged anti-curfew riots. But patience is starting to wear a little thin.
Instead of rioting, Parisians have spent the past year reading. With all cultural venues and festivals closed or cancelled, people turned to books, and despite France’s 3,300 independent bookshops being closed for three months during 2020, losses were only 3.3% compared to the previous year.
A recent law passed that gave bookshops the status of “essential businesses”, meaning that, along with food shops and pharmacies, they can remain open during the current lockdown. Curiously, record stores, florists, hairdressers and chocolate shops have been allowed to stay open as well.
We’ve also been cycling. According to the organisation Vélo et Territoires, the number of bicyclists in Paris has increased by 70% since May. It helped that city officials transformed an additional 50 kilometres of traffic lanes into bike lanes. Still, the heart of Parisian daily life is its cafés, and without them, Paris doesn’t seem like itself. The most recent closure of bars and cafés was on Oct 6, while restaurants closed for service on Oct 30, leaving only the option of takeaway and delivery.
But eateries have not been abandoned. Restaurants and cafés can choose between government aid of up to 10,000 euros per month or compensation equal to 20% of their revenues from 2019 with a limit of 200,000 euros per month. Most of the larger bistros and restaurants are closed, but neighbourhood bistros are often open.
Masked Parisians have been getting together legally throughout the year — to continue a tradition of demonstrating. There have been protests against police brutality, sexual harassment, poverty, nuclear weapons and working conditions, and demonstrations in support of medical staff or teachers, climate change policy, and of political prisoners in Turkey, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. A motley crew of conspiracy theorists, and groups against restrictions and mask-wearing, pop up in various cities to have their say as well.
Paris real estate remains expensive, and unless you’re very wealthy, apartments are small. The chic neighbourhoods, for the most part on the city’s Left Bank, have emptied, their inhabitants having decamped temporarily to second homes in Brittany, Normandy or the south of France. The first lockdown led to a rush of families deciding to leave the city permanently, often for the northern suburbs, expediting a trend that began with the extension of metro lines going just outside the city’s perimeter.
But most Parisians are still stuck at home in confined spaces.
Childhood is one area where France stands out: following the first lockdown, the government made it a priority to keep schools open to avoid disrupting education. According to statistics gathered by Unesco, France’s schools were among the European schools least likely to close over the past year. Children ages six and up are required to wear masks, and classes are held in person as usual (except for high schools).
University courses, however, have all been online, which has been particularly difficult on foreign students who are new to France and are stuck in front of their computers in tiny rooms.
Last but certainly not least, culture, an essential component of city life, is still on hold. Lucas Destrem, who specialises in urbanism and political and cultural geography, recently re-designed the iconic Paris metro map in support of cultural venues waiting to open. His approach was to replace the metro stops with names of museums, art centres, cinemas, theatres, libraries or music conservatories. The map won wide praise in the cultural milieu.
In the meantime, some Parisians are soothing themselves in an unusual way: by behaving like the tourists who typically crowd our streets. It’s become more common for Parisians to treat themselves to a weekend in a hotel, and hotels, in turn, are turning to locals for business, such as the new Hotel Paradiso. Operated by the production company and movie theatre chain MK2, the hotel offers giant screens in each room, and an open-air cinema on the roof, with popcorn, snacks, and a restaurant that delivers meals to rooms. For Parisians who are already avid movie-goers and have €200 (7,300 baht) to spare for a rare treat, this could provide a way to fill this unusual, and temporary, cultural void while we wait for what will happen next. ©2021 Zocalo Public Square
Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature and graphic novels.