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Paris is an open prison

Under lockdown, the City of Light has been thrown into terrible darkness.

These recent weeks have been the strangest in the nearly two decades I have lived and worked in Paris. This includes the terrible year of 2015, which began with the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and ended with the mass slaughter at the Bataclan theatre. It is impossible to say anything good about those events, but at least they were followed by a cathartic sense of redemption, as Parisians of all races and creeds came together to condemn those who had done such violence to their city.

I recall the demonstrations of solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the feeling of release as the city slowly recharged itself. After the Bataclan and the terror attacks of 13 November 2015, as the initial shock was absorbed, people returned to the cafés and restaurants and defied the attackers by living as normally as they could.

But under the present lockdown, Paris feels remarkably different – as if there were no escape from the nightmare, as the daily death toll rises and the streets become emptier and more eerie. At present, the only way you can leave your house is to fill in a form to say whether you are out shopping, going for medical supplies or a medical appointment, or taking a short walk for exercise. Cycling has been banned, jogging is discouraged and you are not allowed to wander more than a kilometre from where you live.

Tougher measures may be on the way, including a prison sentence for those who persistently go out with the wrong papers. Everybody looks tense, tired and melancholic, especially those who are still working in shops or pharmacies. The police can stop you at any time. The city has the feel of an open prison.

The virus is a global phenomenon, but in Paris it has evoked local memories. I first saw this on 17 March, watching the scenes at the Gare de Montparnasse, as thousands of Parisians, loaded down with bags and suitcases, scrambled to get the last trains out of the city before the midday curfew.

No one could witness these scenes without being reminded of the exodus from Paris in the spring of 1940, as the German army closed in. This image was especially vivid, as only a few weeks before the Musée de la Libération de Paris had staged an exhibition on the event and posters of the exodus were plastered all over the city. A neighbour of mine, who had been a child during the Second World War, said the atmosphere today was the same as back then, the difference being that now you could not see the enemy.

During his address to the nation on 16 March, President Macron was serious, in control, but almost visibly pissed off. Parisians had only themselves to blame. The first round of containment measures had been announced two days before, when all cafés and restaurants were instructed to close. Drinkers defied the orders and seemed to goad the authorities with drinking parties that were published on social media. It didn’t help that Sunday 15 March was one of the warmest and most pleasant days of the year. In the late afternoon, I toured the 14ème arrondissement on my bike, expecting to see a bleak and deserted city. Instead, I saw families playing and enjoying picnics in the park, and otherwise respectable-looking folk drinking beer and wine on the benches usually occupied by homeless alcoholics.

The rebellious Parisians were not wholly at fault. The government had been sending mixed messages, imploring voters to avoid one another but, ‘‘in the name of democracy’’, to turn out and vote in the local elections on 15 March.

The city’s incumbent mayor, Socialist deputy Anne Hidalgo, again won the mayoral elections. This was a slightly freakish result given that Hidalgo has presided over some wildly unpopular policies, including unnecessary roadworks that have made travelling across the city an anarchic lottery. In the past 12 months, ‘‘Le Hidalgo-bashing’’ has become one of the most popular sports in Paris, particularly among taxi drivers. But she won 30 per cent of the vote, no doubt because of the record low turnout of 44 per cent. Since then, French political life has been at a standstill – the second round of local elections postponed.

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Monday 16 March was different: everybody knew that the clampdown was about to get stricter and that was exactly what happened. In the first few days after the new regulations were introduced there were a few crafty entrepreneurs who tried to get round the ban on opening cafés by setting up barrels of beer and wine on the street, ostensibly selling ‘‘takeaway drinks’’ with food to small groups of hardened drinkers. This didn’t last long. There were also swaggering gangs of youths out drinking beer and smoking weed. Again, they didn’t last long.

More stringent measures were threatened – including a curfew from 8pm or perhaps 10pm. This has already been piloted in the southern city of Nice, where police drones have been identifying miscreants and stragglers on the Promenade des Anglais.

One of the few politicians to break ranks and buck the mood of national unity has been, predictably enough, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National. She has called for a countrywide curfew to keep ‘‘dealers, muggers and other scum’’ off the streets.

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For the most part, however, the crisis seems to have brought out a strain of common decency among Parisians. Neighbours are offering to shop for the elderly or vulnerable, people respect social distancing, and there have been public displays of gratitude for healthcare workers operating on the front line. One recent Friday night, I helped a young woman called Juliette, who lives in the flat opposite mine, to manoeuvre her bike into our shared apartment building. It was only seven in the evening, but the street was so dark and silent it might as well have been four in the morning. I asked her how she had avoided the police ban on cycling. She explained that she had a special pass because, as a medical student, she had volunteered to help out at the nearby Hôpital Cochin. She had returned home for a pizza and a lie-down after a 12-hour shift, and would be returning to work in six hours’ time to start all over again.

I have my own memories of Cochin, having spent a week there in intensive care four years ago with viral pneumonia. The care was excellent and the staff saved my life. It was all a long way from the horrors described by George Orwell, who spent two weeks in Cochin in the 1930s, an experience that inspired his terrifying essay ‘‘How the Poor Die’’. I reread it last week and I am pleased to say that it is now a very different place from the hellhole Orwell depicts, although his descriptions of the crunch of gravel as you enter a ward and the dreary 19th-century buildings resonate.

There are other literary memories that have become especially relevant since coronavirus struck. One of the bestselling books in recent weeks is Albert Camus’s 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague). This tells the story of an epidemic that takes over the Algerian city of Oran at some point in the 1940s, when Algeria was still considered to be part of France.

When I first read it at school, we were told that this was an allegory for the ‘‘plague’’ of fascism, which had devastated Europe, and that the book was a parable about courage and resistance to evil. This is all true, but the real lesson of La Peste is more brutal, and indeed very much alive during the present crisis. As Oran is sealed off and more people die, those desperate to survive hoard food and betray their neighbours. The collective catastrophe reveals individual venality.

La Peste is not an uplifting book, nor is it meant to be. It is, however, a lesson in accepting that as human beings we too are part of nature. More than this, our humanity is defined by the choices we make in the face of this reality.

Paris is a frightened city. But as in La Peste, small acts of kindness take on the forms of heroic action; the kind of selfless deeds embodied by people such as Juliette, who, exhausted and fearless, cycle out into the darkness to help the sick and the dying. 

Andrew Hussey’s books include  “Paris: The Secret History” (Penguin)

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special