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Paris: A city silenced by COVID-19

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

JASON WALSH reports from the most densely-populated city in Europe on how it is adjusting to life in the era of coronavirus.

The searchlight shines out across Paris as normal. As clichéd an image of Paris that there is, the Eiffel Tower’s lighthouse-like sweep is surely more welcome than ever. Louis XIV’s policy of lighting the streets gave the French capital its moniker ‘the city of lights’ long before Gustave Eiffel built the iron landmark. But the nocturnal lights of Paris, none more so than that of its famous tower, are a beacon in a city that is otherwise dimmed.

From my home, high above a once noisy boulevard, it is eminently clear the coronavirus has changed life beyond recognition. The silence is shocking, and while the twice-weekly market still has most of its stalls it has only a fraction of its usual customers. The mayor is expected to soon ban markets anyway.

The nightly 8pm cheer for medical workers is the only sign of social life as Parisians hang out windows, whistling and clapping. Otherwise, long stretches of time pass with neither a vehicle nor pedestrian passing.

Hotels have been opened for those with nowhere else to go, but Paris’ not inconsiderable homeless population is now the most visible presence on the streets.

Adding another touch of Ballardian surrealism to the already dystopic Omega Man atmosphere, reports say drones are being used to scold anyone who strolls along the Seine.

Social life has moved online, with chat groups springing up. Subscription television channel Canal Plus is broadcasting unencrypted and broadband download limits have been increased in an effort to encourage people to stay indoors.

But boredom is now universal in this city of endless diversion, and with the sun splitting the trees the situation seems absurd.

‘I have to keep watching the news from Italy to remind myself why we are doing this,’ one woman living in my apartment block told me.

The mood is one of blankness more than rage. Panic-buying was short-lived here: now restocked, the shelves were stripped bare only on the day before the quarantine.

The closures are severe, closer to the shutdowns in Italy and Spain than the situation in the UK. The only places remaining open for business are food shops, pharmacies and other medical facilities, tobacconists, post offices and newspaper stands. Even the parks are closed, and this week unemployment offices shut their doors.

Compliance appears high with streets empty save for dog walkers, runners and the homeless. Few cars are seen, outnumbered by delivery scooters as low-paid workers scramble to ensure everyone else remains well-fed.

Naturally arguments have broken 
out on social media: runners are being selfish, say some, and should stay home. Each day fewer seem willing to face the social stigma of lacing up a pair of trainers.

Anger sparks over incongruities: massive queues at the Gare Montparnasse train station over the weekend, including to show paperwork to the police, trended on Twitter.

Until Sunday, I was still going out to sense the atmosphere, albeit not stopping people to do ‘vox pop’ interviews. Shouting at them from two metres away just seemed absurd. Not that there’s anyone to talk to: on one walk around the perimeter of the Père Lachaise cemetery I counted fewer than 10 people.

Even though food shopping is one of the few permitted activities it hasn’t proved much of an attraction: supermarkets, bakeries and even tobacconists are restricting entry, causing long – and very un-French –queues to trail down the street.

Enforcement seems to vary by location. By last Sunday more than 1.7 million people had been stopped and 91,000 fined for being outside without justification, according to Alain Thirion, director general of civil security.

Here in the east of Paris there’s no sign of police. My experience does not seem to be universal, though.

One colleague tells me of a journalist who was fined despite presenting a signed form and press card: one officer let him pass, but, just around the corner, a second was less amenable.

As for my colleague herself, stuck indoors she says she is ‘totally depressed’.

Luckily for me, I have what is by Parisian standards a large apartment 35 square metres, with plenty of light.

Paris, the densest city in Europe with 54,000 people per square mile, is also one of the loneliest cities: more than half of the homes in the French capital are single person households.

Unsurprisingly then, in this city famed for its walkability, apartments are tiny.

Wry jokes circulate: ‘February 2020,’ goes one, ‘I live in a nine square meter apartment, but I’m close to cafés, bars, restaurants, museums, cinemas and theatres.’

‘March 2020,’ it continues, ‘I live in a nine square meter apartment…’. It’s barely a joke. One previous apartment of mine was 10 square meters.

Little surprise, then, that those who could, fled. Summer homes, often inherited and shared among families, filled as France decentralised. Residents of the islands off Morbihan in Brittany thundered that they had been invaded by Parisian second-homers.

Judging by the lights, occupancy in my neighbourhood is now around 60%.

The lockdown, initially scheduled for just 15 days, was extended this week after consultation with the state’s scientific advisory council. No-one knows what will happen next.

No doubt Paris will bounce back. It always has, from riots, from terrorism and even from war. But there is no sense of any joie de vivre on the streets today. The sweeping light of the Eiffel tower, though, promises that in this silent city humanity is waiting to rebound.

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