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Paris’s post-lockdown blues

The city is opening up but something is missing as the old anger and division return.

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Even before the phased end to lockdown was announced on 11 May, the severe restrictions in France had been loosening. The true day of “liberation” came, however, on Tuesday 2 June: this was when after 11 long weeks with their shutters down, all cafés, bars and restaurants were officially allowed to reopen. But Paris remains under special scrutiny from the authorities. According to the government information, the epidemic was “under control”, but this didn’t mean that there weren’t clusters of the virus in circulation, particularly in the poorer parts of the city. As a result, although you could sit at an outside café table in Paris, you couldn’t eat or drink inside until 22 June.

When the lockdown finally ended, it seemed like a small miracle, after so many dead and empty weeks, to see people at café tables, inside or outside, drinking, gossiping, arguing, having a fag, or simply reading a newspaper. During a quick afternoon tour of my neighbourhood, I could easily make out the faces and profiles of local boozers and petty villains in the interior gloom of backstreet bars, happy to be back in their natural habitat.

A few weeks on from the glorious revitalisation of Paris, however, and much of the initial euphoria now seems to have mysteriously dissolved into a melancholy mood that media commentators are calling “post-lockdown blues syndrome”. The philosopher and therapist Nicole Prieur has explained the mood by saying that the rules of lockdown were so tightly enforced that people had no choice but to surrender responsibility for their daily lives. This infantilised even the most independent-minded by offering a kind of protection against a dangerous world.

But now, as the world is starting up again, everyday life is loaded with variables. Do I send my kids to school? Do I go to work? Do I dare go to the market or to the doctor?

Crucially, most people are worried about losing their jobs. This applies especially to workers with contracts called CDD (contrat à durée determinée) – or fixed term contracts – who are invariably the first to be fired. But those on a CDI (contrat à durée indéterminée) – permanent contracts, usually considered a job for life – also fear that they might lose their jobs under the catch-all legal rubric “economic motives”. In his speech of 14 June, President Emmanuel Macron declared that all employers had a civic duty to avoid all unnecessary redundancies. But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen.

A few days later, in my local grocery store, I encountered Sandrine, a waitress at the nearby Café Métro, who was complaining long and loud to anyone who would listen about how she could lose her job. She had been on a CDI but now she had been furloughed. An overall rise in unemployment in Paris is clearly the pattern, and people like Sandrine fear they may never return to their jobs. Sandrine has been a fixture at the Café Métro for as long as I have lived in Paris (since 2006). She is well known for her wit and much feared by tourists who can’t read a menu in French. She is also a single mother with not much prospect of work anywhere else. “I have to feed my kid,” she said. “But what can I do?”

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One of the most immediate consequences of le déconfinement is that ordinary politics is on its way back. At the same time, many of the old complaints about Macron have resurfaced – that he is smug, high-handed and out of touch.

Macron’s first big political test came on 28 June, with the second round of les municipales (local elections). It turned out to be a disaster for him as Europe Ecologie Les Verts (the green party) took control of 15 of France’s major towns and cities in a so-called Green Wave.

In Paris the socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose party has withered away at national level, won with 48.5 per cent of the vote, with her own “green” agenda closely allied to Les Verts. Le Figaro said “the entire political landscape of France had been turned upside down”, leaving the Greens as the only credible party of opposition. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National also claimed an important victory in Perpignan, in the south-west – by far the largest town that the far right has ever taken.

All of this is a vote against Macronism; there was a high rate of abstention (around 60 per cent), which was another expression of discontent. Since the municipal elections, Macron has tried allying himself, somewhat unconvincingly, to the green cause. But he faces another danger.

The Green Wave has alienated voters outside the metropolitan centres who feel that this is further proof that middle-class voters in urban areas do not care about them or their needs. Macron is caught between building bridges with the Greens in urban France, and showing the poorer and more neglected parts of the country that he cares about them too.

This is “disconnected France”, the France of the gilets jaunes, where access to basic medical facilities and jobs matter more than bike lanes in Paris or Bordeaux. Macron seems politically stranded, overtaken by the Greens in the cities, where his natural constituency should lie, and not trusted by many French people who feel left behind and abandoned.

One challenge for Macron is to win over the care workers whom he praised as heroes at the height of the pandemic. By Tuesday 16 June, however, doctors and nurses were demonstrating in Paris, demanding that the Macron fulfil his promises to improve working conditions. The demonstration collapsed into conflict after clashes with the police at the Esplanade des Invalides. It was provoked not by care workers but the usual casseurs, or “wreckers”. Most importantly, however, the violence immediately evoked the recent pre-Covid riots in the city.

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Serious violence had already returned to France by the time Macron announced le déconfinement on 14 June, notably in the Les Grésilles suburb of Dijon. I lived and worked in Dijon for several years and it was and still is a handsome, provincial town where food and wine are the main attractions. This made the scenes of conflict there all the more shocking, as over the weekend of 12 June as many as 100 Chechens, apparently from all over France, launched an attack on the North African community of Les Grésilles, claiming that a local drug gang had attacked a teenage Chechen. Wearing hoods and ski masks, and carrying iron bars, the Chechen thugs, some appearing to carry Kalashnikovs, burned cars, shot at security cameras and threatened journalists. There is footage of the rampage on social media.

This was not a political event or an expression of “post-lockdown blues syndrome”, but simply a gang battle. Unsurprisingly, Marine Le Pen turned up in Dijon on the afternoon of 16 June to give a press conference and turn the street fight into a political issue. She said: “We no longer know if we are in the Far West or Baghdad, in A Clockwork Orange or Mad Max.” The reference to A Clockwork Orange was not, however, a literary nod to Anthony Burgess’s satirical masterpiece but to a 2013 book by Laurent Obertone called La France Orange Mécanique, which describes the breakdown of French society into violent conflict. She again evoked Obertone by saying that events in Dijon were “ultra- violence” and “anti-French hatred”. The solution was simple: empty France of its immigration population.

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Le Pen’s rhetoric was predictable enough, but the divisions that had convulsed France before the Covid crisis have not gone away. There is a real fear of a second wave of the virus and only a few days ago a new huge campaign of testing was launched in Paris and Normandy. Parisians may be relieved that café culture is back, but it must also be clear to all those who are now sipping café crème or beer at a favourite haunt that France may well be in deep crisis for the long haul. 

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation