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Life without liberty: how Covid turned Paris into a city of fear

A strict curfew, tough police measures and rising crime mean tensions are running high in the French capital. 

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In the early evening of Wednesday 20 January, as I was locking up my office in a neighbourhood in southern Paris, I walked straight into a group of four heavily armed soldiers who were coming down the street. They asked me where I lived, which is no more than a ten-minute walk away, and after a cursory but friendly look at my papers, they waved me on my way. They were there to enforce the latest curfew which had been imposed on Paris four days earlier.

The rules are simple: you cannot be out of doors between 6pm and 6am without ­special papers proving that you are a key worker or on other essential business. If you are caught breaking the curfew, you are fined €135 – €200 for a second offence. There is a sliding scale that goes up to a fine of €3,750 and a possible jail sentence of six months if you are caught three times in 30 days.

My encounter with the soldiers had already made me late and so I hurried down the street, towards the Café Métro on the Rue Raymond-Losserand. As I got closer to the café, which was now dark, shuttered and forbidding, I noticed a gang of lads, drinking and smoking weed under the awnings of the terrasse. They began to approach me with a menacing swagger. I feigned an interest in the adverts in an estate agent’s window, which was closed like every shop on the street. And then, all but slapping my forehead in a parody of forgetfulness, I turned on my heels and headed back to my office.

Once safely back I decided to return to my emails for an hour or so, risking a fine rather than a mugging, and eventually got home at about 7.30pm. The soldiers had long since disappeared. By this time the youths, too, had faded into the darkness.

This was an inconsequential incident, but other Parisian friends and colleagues have reported similar unnerving experiences since the curfew began on 16 January. These new, if minor, dangers demonstrate how much the present restrictions have fundamentally reshaped the organisation of everyday life in Paris. This is mostly due to the early hour the night-time curfew begins. In Paris, the window between 6pm and 8pm is, as in other French cities, normally the busiest time of day for food shopping, drinking an apéritif, meeting friends, and generally being on the move. However, according to Stanislas Guerini, a senior figure in Emmanuel Macron’s government and a spokesman for the campaign against the virus, it is this hustle and bustle that has been the specific target of the curfew.

[see also: Virtuous Italy. Reckless Italy]

Guerini has set out to abolish what he calls l’effet apéro (“the aperitif effect”), as he claims that up to a third of Covid contaminations have occurred when friends and family have socialised. Guerini wants to limit the possibilities of social contact by shutting down the impromptu street bars that have popped up all over Paris as replacements for the cafés and restaurants that have been closed since 30 October.

Understandably, the response to the ­curfew has been one of stress and anger as people feel that the last of their minor ­pleasures have been taken away from them. And now the Métro and shops are packed until 6pm as people rush home to beat the fines. None of this makes sense to the average Parisian commuter.

Paris has a grim history associated with curfews. The last time the city had restrictions as tough and unpopular was in October 1961, at the height of the ­Algerian War of Independence, when the Paris ­Préfecture of Police announced a curfew from 8pm to 5.30am for any ­“Algerian Muslims” or “French Muslims”, effectively meaning anyone of North African appearance.

At that time, Paris had a population of around 150,000 Muslims. On 17 October 1961, more than 30,000 Muslims joined a mass demonstration against this openly racist restriction. On the Pont de Neuilly, the police shot into the crowd, beating up protesters and throwing them into the Seine. Hundreds of people were believed to have been killed, but the crime was officially denied. Indeed, it was only in 1998 that the French government admitted there had been a massacre. Even now, the number of Muslims murdered is unknown.

There are echoes of other, earlier curfews. Elderly neighbours of mine, who were children during the Second World War, have told me that the empty night-time streets have reminded them of the curfew under the German occupation. The singular difference in the 21st century is that the enemy does not wear a uniform; instead, people are reminded of the threat of the virus by the ever-present soundtrack of ambulances heading to packed and overstretched hospitals. Two weeks ago, home-made flyers appeared on the doors of local apartment blocks in my quartier offering a house clearance service “in case of sudden death”. Most people ripped them up, disgusted by the opportunist chancers who had produced them. This was yet another sinister and unwanted reminder of how grim and dangerous Paris feels at the moment.

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Aside from the bad memories, the curfew has brought to the surface long-standing political issues in French civic life. Chief among these is the problem of l’insécurité (“insecurity”). This term is commonly used to describe a wide-ranging series of threats to the stability of French life, from drug gangs armed with Kalashnikovs in the lawless suburbs of Marseille or Paris, to Islamist terrorism or the spectacular violence which accompanied the demonstrations of the gilets jaunes. It is regularly invoked by Marine Le Pen and others on the far right as a way of inciting fear among potential voters, especially against immigrants. Recently, however, President Macron has been trying to steal this agenda by showing he is as tough on crime as any of his right-wing rivals.

Most notably, Macron has been lobbying for a new security law that would ultimately make the filming and distribution of footage of police brutality a crime, and will at the same time give the police power to use drones and surveillance cameras to aid facial recognition. The proposed law provoked outrage after a video went viral of policemen beating up Michel Zecler, a black music producer, in his studio. Macron said he was “shocked” by the footage, but has still moved ahead with the new bill.

The issue has not gone away, and anger over the bill has intensified. On 30 January, large demonstrations took place in Paris and other French cities, in which anti-police protesters were joined by the resurgent gilet jaune movement, all coming together in opposition both to the new law and the curfew.

At Place de la République in Paris, teufeurs (French slang for “ravers”) played loud music throughout the afternoon in support of the 2,500 revellers who attended a New Year’s Eve rave in Brittany, which was later broken up by police. Inevitably, in the early evening, the Parisian demonstrations ended in violence as casseurs (“wreckers”) used fireworks and other missiles to launch random attacks against police lines.

[see also: Why is France getting Covid-19 vaccination so wrong?]

“All of this is important,” said “Frédéric” to the daily newspaper Le Parisien, which generally always claims to be on the side of the people. Frédéric did not give his second name but described himself as a veteran communist. He went on: “What is at stake here is in fact liberticide.” This term is now being widely used on the right and the left as a rallying cry against Macron’s government.

Liberticide is not a new word; it dates back to the 1790s when it was first used by Gracchus Babeuf, a journalist and proto-communist, who argued that the French Revolution did not go far enough.

Liberticide has a long and deep resonance in French political culture. This means Macron’s latest battle, as Frédéric cogently pointed out, is not only with Covid and anti-curfew protesters; it is with French history and what it means to be French in a country where liberté is supposed to be not only a cherished ideal but a lived reality.

The situation is one of the bleakest in Europe. At the time of writing, there have been more than 80,000 deaths from Covid-19 in France, with only a slight fall in daily cases since the introduction of the curfew. As the annual half-term winter holidays approach – traditionally a time for ski parties and family gatherings – the medical consensus is that liberticide is irrelevant: things will only get worse without more ­severe restrictions.

In the meantime, the general sense of anxiety that most people feel, whatever their political beliefs, is heightened by the way that Paris looks and feels in the ­daytime. The visible changes to my own quartier to the south of the city are fairly typical of the changes that have taken place. In the space of a few months, a formerly busy working-class district has become forlorn and, in parts, has fallen into dilapidation.

The old-style poissonnerie (fishmonger’s) has been replaced by yet another pizza delivery shop. Other businesses – including a homely boulangerie, a local hub for gossip and good bread – have been boarded up and become magnets for graffiti. There is also an increasing number of homeless people on the streets.

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Long-time inhabitants swap stories about increasing crime levels, largely muggings and burglaries. My own flat was burgled a few months ago – an attempted break-in at my office followed soon afterwards.

One of the police officers who came to check the damage in my flat told me, with a bored shrug, that there had been three other burglaries on my street that same afternoon. Rumours of other crimes circulate in the quartier: one recent shocking story was of a young woman of Algerian origin, who had obvious mental health problems, who was raped by a gang in the local children’s playground. Everyone who lives here is aware that the quartier, and indeed the entire city of Paris, is changing shape and character. No one ­expects that it will ever return to what it was. The only real question is, once the pandemic passes, what will it have become? 

Andrew Hussey’s latest book “The French Intifada” (Granta) is available now

 

This article appears in the 17 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth