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Coronavirus in Europe: Is lockdown France’s fraternité fraying?

A man rides his bicycle past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, with the city in lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

CONSTANCE KAMPFNER reports from Nantes on how the country is coming to terms with its continued confinement

‘What’s confinement like over there? Is it true that it’s crazy strict?’ In the kid’s playground at the foot of my nine-storey tower block in a giant apartment complex on the outskirts of Nantes, I’m on the phone to a friend back home, catching a rare moment of fresh air.

I tell him that it’s not much different from what’s going on in the UK, except you have to go to the shops alone. It didn’t wash when one woman who was caught food shopping with her husband said that it was because he never got the right kind of yoghurt.

And there are these forms that you have to fill in every time you go outside to prove you’ve a right to be there. Except not everyone has a printer, so some people copy them out on loo roll. We’re a lot less concerned about loo roll here, by the way.

There’s a note of urgent inquiry in his voice as he asks me about life across the Channel. I’m used to this. We’ve been on lockdown for since March 17 and after the UK’s confusingly slow response to the crisis, on calls with family members I sometimes feel I’m being used as a kind of looking glass, as they try to work out whether they’ll still be feeling sane in a week’s time.

Mostly I think they will be. The first few days were actually the strangest, now it feels like we’ve relaxed into the rhythm of isolation. Although that rhythm also includes the moments where you feel you might explode if you don’t go outside soon.

It has been unreasonably hot and sunny over here, and unlike in the UK, the government has closed all the parks. After scrolling through pictures of friends lounging out on their balconies and their back gardens, I feel like deleting Instagram.

‘Mostly I feel like I’m just doing all the stuff I’d normally do, but without the guilt,’ I tell him.

It’s true. When I’m not doing interviews over the phone for a local Nantes radio station, I can mainly be found playing The Sims with my French flatmates, a dangerous habit I got into after my university finals.

This time, I was all set on building your standard two-up-two-down home and then seeing how many babies our sims could make, neglect and have confiscated. But the guys I live with were horrified by the idea, and our sims now live in a reconstruction of the Chateaux of Pierrefonds.

Our real-life complex is less glamorous, but it does at least have a basketball court. On the day Macron announced imminent lockdown, our preparatory shop included an emergency ball. In moments when I feel I’m going stir crazy, I start dribbling in the flat. ‘The neighbours!’ my conscientious flatmate always reminds me. I stop, realising that they’re probably in.

We have little contact with said neighbours, except for the nightly 8pm clapping session, when everyone blasts music and hangs out of their windows. We do have big windows, perfect for people-watching from the vantage point of the ninth floor. Our favourite time of day is when the topless man in the apartment block opposite begins his daily ritual of balcony sweeping cum rigorous push-up session.

Then there’s the people across the hall, a young couple also in their twenties, who we’ve spoken to a couple of times from the safe distance of our respective doormats. They seemed pretty quiet, so it came as a surprise when on Sunday night, they were blasting hardcore French rap out until 4am.

The next morning, a reminder that the feeling of neighbourly goodwill awakened by this crisis will only last so long was tacked onto the ground floor noticeboard. ‘Did the people on the ninth floor (on the left-hand side as you exit the lift, it fortunately specified) have no idea how disrespectful and puerile their behaviour was?’ The anonymous grumbler warned they would be contacting the building’s agency. I imagine they won’t be hearing back.

This kind of remote communication that we’re all growing used to still hasn’t lost it’s element of ghostliness. To me, it emphasises the feeling that the drama is happening elsewhere, out there… For now, the Pays de la Loire where we are has a much lower infection rate, than the Grand Est, and the Ile de France, the country’s worst-hit regions.

On Thursday, France was stunned by heroic images of a TGV train decked out as a hospital, carrying patients from the east towards Nantes and the surrounding cities, using our hospitals to ease the pressure over there.

I get regular updates from a friend in Paris. Yesterday, he told me he was worried about the disparity between how his gentrified neighbourhood is being mo Is lockdown France’s fraternité fraying? nitored, while the police seem to have all but given up on the rougher next-door Barbès.

His concern checks out. The French government has stated that intervening in the banlieues is ‘not the priority’ right now, as though your postcode could determine your susceptibility to the virus. While images of people gathering late at night in Paris’s suburbs have caused outpourings of indignation on social media, lots of people are living in overcrowded flats, and charities are struggling to patch up the holes left by closed food banks.

According to a recent poll, the more right-wing you are, the more likely you are to feel that your compatriots aren’t playing by the rules. Some 82% of Rassemblement National (the rebranded Front National) voters questioned expressed that opinion.

So is this neighbourly cooperation all an illusion? Watching the kids on the basketball court playing grandmother’s footsteps, making sure to stay well
clear of the woman on the other side getting in her daily dose of yoga, I’m
not sure.

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