France's Second COVID Lockdown Offers a Glimpse Into the Future

Although most agree new restrictions are needed, there is a sense the government isn't doing enough to support people financially.
November 2, 2020, 5:58pm
Montmarte​
Montmarte. All photos: Peter Yeung

The red neon lights of Aux Folies, a centuries-old bar in eastern Paris that was once home to a young cabaret singer called Édith Piaf, seem to glow a little dimmer than usual. Gone are the rowdy pavement terrace tables, usually crammed together. Upturning decades of tradition, this historic drinker’s institution now sells takeaway pizzas and charcuterie.

Wally Senhadji, a 46-year-old who first began working at Aux Folies in the 1990s, says that trade is down around 80 percent since the summer. When compared with the normal business levels being reached before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in France nearly a year ago, he adds, takings could be down by as much as 98 percent.

“This place has been around for more than 100 years,” says Senhadji, one of the bar’s 10 full-time employees. “It’s survived through the First and Second World Wars. It is part of the spirit of this neighbourhood. This is an extremely difficult time. But we won’t let the pandemic kill us.”

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Wally Senhadji

Following on from a strict two-month lockdown in March and April, France began its second nationwide lockdown on Friday in an effort to curb the country’s surging number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The lockdown is expected to run until at least the 1st of December, though it could be extended.

President Emmanuel Macron delivered a televised address from the Élysée Palace on Wednesday, saying the measures were needed to apply a “brutal brake” to infections, admitting recent efforts to contain the virus – including a 9pm curfew that applied to two-thirds of the population – had not worked. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 37,000 deaths and 1.4 million cases, according to the French public health authority, including 52,000 cases recorded last Saturday alone.

Yet Macron’s latest response to the pandemic – which will see schools remain open but “non-essential” businesses, including bars, restaurants, and cultural venues, close for at least a month – is coming under criticism from the public. 

“Of course the lockdown is necessary but small, independent businesses like ours will suffer the most,” adds Senhadji of Aux Folies. “Why should huge DIY shops and electronics stores full of people be able to stay open, while we must close?”

The prickly issue of how the French government has come to define what exactly an “essential” business is has drawn widespread condemnation. Bookshops were among those to be deemed non-essential, while “multi-specialist brands” like Fnac-Darty, which sells computer equipment, has been authorised to remain open – yet a backlash meant it was forced to close all of its cultural aisles. Even with that imbalance settled, many booksellers face a grim future over the coming months.

 “As much as a third of our sales come in December, ahead of Christmas,” says Ablan Perrine, 34, who works at Le Genre Urbain in Belleville, which is still serving customers who can’t enter but instead collect purchases at the entrance of the bookshop. “Online companies like Amazon are the ones who will benefit from this. We are not responsible for this crisis, we always respected the health regulations. The government didn’t act early enough elsewhere – that’s why there are problems.”

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Workers at Le Genre Urbain

For all the critique of the government’s handling of the pandemic response, however, there have been fews signs of France’s age-old form of dissent: protest. On Thursday night, just before the lockdown came into effect, small gatherings appeared in cities including Bordeaux, Lille, Toulouse and Paris, where a few hundred protesters paraded from the Place de la République in the name of civil liberties. Disobedience has instead mostly come in the more relaxed form of bending the rules, as groups now gather in the street to chat or to share a morning coffee on a park bench. 

But the on-the-ground reality is that Paris, like the rest of France, has been transformed into a ghost town once again. From the tourist hubs of the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, to the narrow alleys of the Marais and the grand boulevards of central Paris, the streets are largely deserted. Metro carriages chug between stations completely empty; neighbourhoods have become silent galleries of metal shutters; groups of police check people’s documents.

Hervé Guimmet, a 52-year-old wine seller out for his daily exercise along the famed Champs-Èlysées, says half of his day-to-day business has been lost due to the lockdown. “What’s almost as terrible is that we can’t live our normal lives,” he says. “It’s very sad to see Paris like this. But, for health reasons, it has to be done.”

Bonnie, a freelance book editor based in Montmartre, agrees the lockdown is necessary – but believes that some will suffer as a consequence of it more than others. “The government is giving support, but it’s mainly to those who already have permanent jobs,” she says. “I know many small business owners that are struggling, and I myself have had many projects postponed or cancelled. It’s frightening.”

In the poorer neighbourhoods of the French capital, that threat to livelihoods is in even sharper focus. Kebe Moussa, 50, a taxi driver in Paris for a decade, says demand has never been so low. Stationed on the side of the road in Barbès, a poor immigrant district in the north, he’s brought paperwork to do in his car while waiting for customers that are becoming less and less common. 

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“There’s no work,” says Moussa. “I’m just sitting here like a fisherman for hours while my bank account is in the red. But I can’t be a fisherman. I have to have guarantees that I can pay my bills every month. The government needs to support us.”

The same goes for the city’s rough sleepers, who under lockdown have become even more visible. Some sit on cardboard boxes in front of supermarkets and ATMs; some station themselves on street corners; and others, preparing for the onset of winter, drag mattresses down to the metro stations for shelter.

“It’s the poor who suffer the worst,” says one man waiting in the queue at Mission Évangéliste, a charity that provides food to homeless people. An army veteran, he camps in the suburbs of Paris and comes to the centre for meals – but, if the situation worsens, he fears charities will close as they did during the first lockdown. “What will we do if they close?” he adds. “You can’t imagine what we went through then. I can’t do it again.”