Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
After Parisians post pictures from the city’s parks, the government calls for a countrywide lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 infections.
A rapidly spreading global pandemic didn’t stop Parisians from crowding public parks and pathways on the first, warm sunny weekend of the year — and then posting the evidence on Twitter and Instagram. The French government was watching.
“We’ve also seen people getting together in parks, in bars that haven’t respected the order to close, as if somehow life hadn’t changed,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address Monday evening, when he announced a countrywide lockdown on top of the government’s earlier efforts to close restaurants and cafes. “It’s not just you that you aren’t protecting — recent developments have shown that no one is invulnerable, not even the youngest of us.”
The government is far from alone in expressing concern, especially after France recorded 900 new cases of the Covid-19 virus on Sunday and 400 hospitalizations. French Twitter users shared many images of busy public spaces yesterday using the hashtag #irresponsables to shame people who had left their homes to mingle with others in close quarters. Overnight, the images became a focus of public fear that France, like many countries, is mentally unprepared for what might be about to hit it.
This carefree behavior might seem thoughtless, but to be fair to Sunday’s park-goers, the French public has been receiving messages from officialdom that are not entirely clear. France held its first round of countrywide municipal elections on Sunday, despite objections from medical officials — including the head of a Parisian hospital group. In his latest address, Macron postponed the second round of voting, scheduled for March 22.
Polling stations relied on disinfected pens, hand sanitizer and a carefully maintained distance between voters for the first round of elections — a less dramatic change from the usual routine than one might expect. Turnout was indeed markedly lower than the last national municipal vote in 2014, dropping 19 percentage points.
Meanwhile, much of France appeared to be operating normally on Monday. In the Paris suburbs this morning, supermarkets were busy despite large gaps on the shelves, and the streets were still filled with pedestrians, cyclists and cars.
This shows the endurance of engrained cultural habit. As Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe told news channel BFMTV: “I know it’s a concept that we’re averse to because us French people like to get together, he said. “We are a happy nation, happy to live together, even a bit more than usual when fear grips us.”
Something deeper may also be at work. This is a crisis different from any that European countries have faced in a long time. When Paris suffered terror attacks in 2015, many residents refused to be cowed — to carry on as normal and thus not let anyone or anything that threatened everyday life beat them down. This “Keep Calm and Carry On” conditioning has sunk deep, and not just in France. In an era where courage has previously meant showing your face and gathering together with your fellow citizens, it may take a while before people realize that holing up and hiding is in fact the braver thing to do.
If the virus’ spread is to be halted, it’s still an attitude that has to change, fast — as France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran said Sunday in a TV interview. “We see grandparents who are happy with their grandchildren, and these are happy moments, it’s sunny — but I can tell you that the virus is invisible. It’s invisible and threatens people’s lives, and I’m begging all French people watching to abide by the social distancing measures.”