Distanciation sociale

Something always gets lost in translation when the French adopt an English expression. This is true for ‘social distancing’: ‘la distanciation sociale’.

First, the words: as the illustrious Académie Française points out, the term is evocative not so much of physical distance as that between social classes. Hence, the preferred use of ‘distanciation physique’ (physical distancing), among the ‘gestes barrières’ (hygiene measures) to protect each other from coronavirus.

Second, the distance: here too something is lost. About a metre, actually. Everywhere else in the world it is suggested that people stay 6 feet or 2 metres (approximately) apart; here in France the recommendation is ‘at least’ one metre. Although, to be fair, the WHO only recommends one metre (not that the WHO has been much of a reference throughout this pandemic!)

The problem is that even one metre’s distance is pretty well impossible to maintain in France. Everything from sidewalks to shops is smaller in France.  The average density of people in most public places is also higher. And the French, well, like to touch each other. When greeting someone you know or are meeting for the first time, a handshake or double-cheeked kiss is virtually obligatory. For years I’ve had to fight my innate standoffishness and learn to be more physical with people. Now, I’m happily unlearning it.

Savoyard social distance: 3 wheels of raclette cheese

Even at the best of times, pre-COVID-19, I find the close proximity of my fellow countrymen disturbing. Often when shopping I’ll stand back from a swarm of shoppers and wait until the crowd has cleared before making my selection.

Just the other day I identified myself as a non-native — if not a pariah — by over-reacting to someone who did not respect social distancing rules. All of the very small shops have signs on the doors saying no more than 1-2 customers should enter at one time. When I went to the bakery early one morning, I didn’t bother wearing a mask. I was going to be in and out, the woman serving would be behind a plexiglas barrier. Like the few other customers at that early hour, I waited in front of the door. But when I was inside about to order my bread, two other people came in behind me. One even came right up next to me and asked the clerk if she could pick up her order. I turned on heel and went outside, mumbling about social distancing. Then I waited for the shop to be empty again and went back in, shooting daggers at anyone who dared to join me.

Socially distanced Italians

If only people would wear masks. Some do, myself included, at least most of the time. But while we don’t have the extremes of our American cousins demonstrating against the wearing of masks, many people here just quietly ignore the guidelines. Or wait until they’re forced to wear a mask in order to enter public spaces or use transportation.

Which creates a whole new set of problems. Sadly, ignorance knows no borders.

Philippe, a bus driver was viciously beaten in Bayonne, southwest France, on Sunday by four thugs when he insisted they wear masks or get off the bus. He is in a coma and all over the country, vigils are being held and transit workers are walking out. I am horrified that people would do this and pray that he pulls through.

What’s your experience with social distancing?


  1. midihideaways · July 9, 2020

    I’m horrified to hear that someone would beat up a bus driver for requesting that people wear masks! I find that there is a certain defiance in people – I had to go to a shopping mall the other day, where there were marks on the floor and everywhere else, indicating a one-way system of walking around. Many people did not respect the one-way, including a security guard working at the mall, and even more people did not wear masks, even inside shops where it was clearly required and where masks were available for free for those who hadn’t brought one. I shall not be going back there in a hurry!! Some restaurants are also flaunting the requirements for staff and guests to wear masks – the fine, if anyone bothered to check up on them, would be 750 Euros. In some restaurants, the staff wear masks, but the owner/greeter does not ‘antagonise’ guests who arrive without wearing a mask. I guess they are just too happy to have anyone coming through the door and the last thing they want to do is to upset the guests, but really?? We do need to be careful and vigilant, and somehow the majority of people are doing the ostrich thing and think it won’t happen to them…. I’ve started to wear a mask pretty much every time I go out of the door.

    • MELewis · July 9, 2020

      Isn’t it awful? It seems so unfair that a poor driver should bear the brunt of enforcing common sense, as legislated by the government. You can’t put a policeman on every bus but I would rather see random police checks and let the driver do the driving. Glad to hear you are being careful. Stay well!

  2. margaret21 · July 9, 2020

    Here, people are being pretty careful. It’s a small town and we’re an obedient lot. Apart from the old ladies (and it does seem to be an old lady thing) who carefully wear masks – that just about cover their lips, leaving their noses exposed. I keep wondering whether I should (gently) challenge them. I love the raclette poster – only in France, eh?

    • MELewis · July 9, 2020

      Yes, that poster really says it all! (Although you’d think the stinky cheese would socially distance itself!) The masks below the noses thing is very common around here — men too. It may be to avoid fogging up the glasses? I learned the trick for that: you just twist the ear bands to create a kind of air pouch over your nose. It really works and keeps your nose protected!

  3. pedmar10 · July 9, 2020

    well maybe the English copied it from the French,,, aka Normans ::)

    • MELewis · July 9, 2020

      Hi Pedmar, do you mean social distancing? 🧐

      • pedmar10 · July 9, 2020

        yes many words in English have a French base thanks to the Normans so who come first the chicken or the eggs ::)

  4. paul · July 9, 2020

    it was a savage act to have attacked Phillipe. I hope he recovers soon, Here in London at the beginning of the outbreak I came across a few aggressive individuals in queues who did not quite know how far 2 metres actually is. The UK government should have said 6 feet, now they have Brexited. One of the men thought I was too close to him in the queue and was quite nasty. I said to him I was over 2metres away from him. I thought he was going to have a go at me. I hope they caught the four thugs in Bayonne who did it

    • MELewis · July 10, 2020

      The UK sounds like Canada where metric is only half-used and accepted. People there still talk in feet and inches but refer to speeds in km. I can handle either, but you have to stick to one! As for the distances, it really can bring out the worst in people to feel physically threatened. They have caught the four suspects and I do hope they go down for it.

  5. Susanne · July 9, 2020

    As you probably know, in Canada it is a 2 metre rule and for the most part, at least in the places I’ve gone, people are complying. As someone pointed out in counter-argument to the anti-mask boobs who think it is infringing on some right, there are all kinds of rules in place to keep people safe, such as drivers’ licences, speed limits on highways, no drinking and driving, being a certain age before being able to purchase booze, etc. These are things to keep us all safe. In the grand scheme of things, a mask is a small concession to community health and to being able to function with a modicum of “normalcy”. I really feel for people in public jobs, like bus drivers and grocery clerks, who also want to go to work and be safe. How truly horrible that they encounter violence for doing a vital job.

    • MELewis · July 10, 2020

      Glad to hear there is mostly cooperation and respect of distances in Canada — to be fair, I would expect no less! I suppose the influence from south of the border means there are going to be those who protest against any kind of government intervention, even sensible ones. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a new normal and that the mask wearing becomes optional as the pandemic wanes. As for those serving on the ‘front lines’ in service jobs, it does seem hard enough without having to ward off life-threatening illness.

  6. The Pink Agendist · July 9, 2020

    I’ve been socially distancing since long before it became the fashion, so I’m very good at it 😀

    • MELewis · July 10, 2020

      Lol, I hear you. It is essential to discreetly maintain a bit of personal space when living in France.

  7. acflory · July 10, 2020

    Here in Australia most idiots don’t wear masks in public, but negativity towards those that do is restricted to pitying looks and raised eyebrows. Or at least that has been the case until the recent re-lockdown in my state. Suddenly, finally, everyone is starting to talk about masks.

    There’s research now about the aerosolization [sp?] of droplets containing virus particles. If that is true then even 2 metres is not enough, but universal mask wearing would be.

    I honestly can’t understand why Western countries are so averse to learning from our South East Asian neighbours. They are doing so much better than us because they’ve been wearing masks from the word go.

    We are dying of our own stupidity and selfish disregard of everyone but ourselves…-breathes hard-

    Apologies and end rant.

    • MELewis · July 10, 2020

      No need to apologize — all valid points! For years we gave our Asian tourists strange looks when they got off the bus wearing masks, but now it’s obvious why. I don’t know if the Aussie resistance is like the American one but it seems that countries with a strong macho or rugged individualist culture are the ones where masks pose the greatest problem. The odd thing is that very few wear them in Switzerland, despite their security-conscious culture, unless on trains and transport where they are mandated. But at least there is tolerance and you don’t get so many looks if you do!

      • acflory · July 10, 2020

        -sigh- I think that rugged individualism is a load of baloney. It’s what a lot of people imagine themselves to be, and aren’t. Sheeple.

        I think the fact that masks are /mandated/ on public transport is actually a big thing because that’s one area where you’re least likely to be able to keep your distance. I haven’t read much about Switzerland at all. How’s it coping with the virus?

      • MELewis · July 11, 2020

        The Swiss are naturally fairly respectful and density is not a huge issue, so they’ve been lucky. People keep their distance and clean their hands a lot. But the authorities just implemented a requirement for masks on public transport which I think is a wise move, considering how much people travel by train.

      • acflory · July 11, 2020

        My state is in the middle of a resurgence and the Premier has ‘asked’ us to wear masks in public. My first thought was ‘at last!’. The second was, ‘I bet the idiots don’t’. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to be your own person while at the same time caring for others. Then again, I may just be an old biddy who likes yelling at the TV…

      • MELewis · July 11, 2020

        That makes at least of us (although in my case it’s more often technology that gets yelled at)! 😜

      • acflory · July 12, 2020

        -grin- I’m okay with technology unless it’s my so called smartphone. Tiny screen, hideously expensive data, an interface I hate and junk apps, lots and lots of junk apps.
        Yup, smartphones, lovely…not.

  8. George Lewis · July 10, 2020

    Here iin Ontario we are following the six foot rule with pretty good adherence. Masks are common in stores and will become compulsory on the 10th, although enforcement is questionable. How rules without penalties are expected to work is beyond me. There are always some idiots who will refuse. For me I will wear a mask in stores to protect myself. I feel they are good protection in enclosed spaces and if they protect others fine.

    • MELewis · July 10, 2020

      Better late than never! But who will enforce it? It should not be down to the staff to do so. If there are cameras in the stores perhaps they can be used to spot and identify offenders. Does Canada have a track-and-trace app? Anyone who enters a public space without a mask and is later found to be infected should be severely fined but there has to be a way of tracking exposure.

  9. Colin Bisset · July 10, 2020

    And just heart-breaking to hear that Philippe has died from his injuries. Pandemics, it seems, bring
    out the very worst in people as much as the very best…

    • MELewis · July 11, 2020

      I had not heard. The news reports say his injuries were so severe he had no chance. My heart goes out the poor family, a wife and daughter. He was 59. May the two culprits be locked away for life.

  10. Al in France · July 17, 2020

    I know exactly what you mean about the boulangerie….had the same issue just yesterday with a guy dashing in without any regard to the rules or the fact that there were even any customers! Just pushed to the front to grab his order, touched everyone inside and outside the shop as he swept by and not a single ‘excusez-moi’ uttered! As of Monday it seems we will be all going to the ‘masked ball’!

  11. Suzanne et Pierre · July 20, 2020

    Quebec has now made wearing masks mandatory in all closed public spaces including public transport throughout the province. It was about time; we have been wearing masks since the beginning of April because it is proven to be helpful to protect others and now myself. There are obviously some idiots who think it is Ok to endanger others by not respecting any of the recommended practices. We have had a bit of uptick in cases recently as has a few of the other provinces after a definitive decline…most of those cases are now in young people and associated to large parties and bars… It is such a strange time! (Suzanne)

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