Coup de grâce

My new Swiss resident’s permit states my nationality as ‘FRA’, short for ‘Französische’. It seems odd to be identified by my French-ness as it still feels new. Yet French I am, at least by adoption, and of my two nationalities it is the more relevant in the EU. Being Canadian is my trump card (and yes, I’m taking back that word), one that I play when travelling overseas. Sometimes also in the UK. Yet travel, for now, feels entirely irrelevant.

Like any newcomer to a country I seek out that which is familiar. That means sticking to my old French TV habits most evenings as I get dinner ready. Watching the news on Swiss TV in German, especially with subtitles, is far better for my language learning but hey, we’re all entitled to kick back. So the early evening talk shows on France 5 and the national news on France 2 keep me informed, if not always entertained, about what is happening in my new-former home country.

And it’s not good. In fact, it’s downright depressing. Somehow, having stepped away from the place, I now see all things French in an even darker light than before. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, to quote the Bard. Not to suggest corruption but rather to point out that the structure is crumbling.

Let’s start with the insanity of closing all ‘non-essential’ shops and services to prevent the spread of Covid19. Define ‘non-essential’. Beyond food and water, to me what is essential right now might mean chocolate, beer, books. To others it could be clothing, live music, exercise, museums, Netflix. If we are talking about anything beyond basic survival, how can a government define what is essential? And more importantly, how can these businesses survive the interminable shutdowns?

Right now all French shops aside from food stores are closed while online retaillers are booming. People are not allowed to go further than one kilometre from home for exercise while, for those who live outside of the cities, the forests and fields beckon. Children go to school while parents mostly work from home. What kind of crazy is that?

I learned on the French news this week that Le Printemps, the grand old lady of the French department store, is preparing to shutter several stores around the country. Management blames it on the ‘coup de grâce’ of the pandemic. Meaning that they were already in trouble, but that confinement has struck the final death blow to these stores.

The government decision to close shops during the prime-time roll up to the year-end holidays seems insane. Not to downplay the dangers of the virus, but with proper distancing measures store closures could be avoided. Masks, hand sanitizing, limited numbers allowed in shops. It’s not rocket science. Here in Switzerland it appears to work. Not risk-free, certainly, but a more balanced approach to saving lives and livelihoods.

Another French talk show last night was all about the profound transformation our society is undergoing with this pandemic. The work-from-home option is probably here to stay, which means that the value of commercial real estate will likely drop. Businesses of all sizes will be affected by this change, not to mention the many that will go bankrupt, leading to more unemployment. The knock-on effects of this crazy year are going to be felt for a very long time.

The photo featured at the top of this post is a bit of a cheat. I took it at the Musée d’Orsay when we were in Paris a few years ago. I don’t know anything about the work shown here but it doesn’t seem to depict a ‘coup de grâce’, which is a final blow delivered out of kindness to end suffering. Instead it appears to be about fighting back and defending against an enemy. Perhaps we should all take inspiration from it.

Qu’en penses-tu?

La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?

A quelle sauce on sera mangé

With which sauce will we be eaten? This is the question the French have been asking themselves ever since Macron announced that the coronavirus lockdown in France would be lifted starting from May 11. If we all behave ourselves and stay home until then, that is.

The political system in France is based on a President, who makes high-level decisions, and a Prime Minister, who puts them in motion with the ministers in his/her cabinet. The hierarchical nature of such relationships was first made clear to me in an interview with the late French President Jacques Chirac, who, when asked to describe his relationship with his then-Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was famously quoted as saying: “Je décide, il exécute.” (Basically: he does what I tell him).

No one was really surprised when PM Edouard Philippe began presenting his detailed plans for deconfinement with a warning that May 11 could easily be pushed back if there is a spike in new cases before then. Meaning: stay home now or forget about going out again any time soon.

The plan is based on three pillars: protect, test, isolate. It is a phased approach in which schools, stores and most everything else will reopen and get back to business over May and June. As of May 11, people will no longer require a document stating their business when outside home. But we will have to stay within a 100-km radius for now, unless for work or family emergencies. This is to prevent the entire country from racing to the coasts for the May-June long weekends and causing a new wave of COVID-19 to spread.

In the meantime the goal is to step up testing to 700K tests per week. Tracking and tracing through an app is also planned so that any new outbreaks can be contained. Masks will be available, and required in some public places like the trains and métro, although people will have to buy them, a concept that many of my state-reliant fellow citizens find abhorrent.

Restaurants and beaches will remain closed until further notice, probably reopening sometime in July for a later-than-usual holiday period.

All in all, people in France will still have to be patient but there is hope that things will return to a ‘new normal’ by summer.

As sauces go, it could be worse.

There is a consensus among many of the media that France has fucked up in its management of the pandemic. The dearth of masks and hand sanitizer, the earlier confusing messages about whether or not to wear a mask, to go out and vote in municipal elections or stay safely at home — all of these critical points and failures are true. It’s their interpretation that is somewhat open to debate. Yes, our leaders could have handled many things better. But when I look around at what has happened everywhere else in the world, it could also have been a lot worse. It seems this healthcare crisis has exposed the worst cracks in our society at every level, like fault lines in an earthquake. I only hope we will learn from it and that these mistakes will be lessons on how to do things better in the future.

In the end I suppose I’d rather be eaten in a French sauce, even mediocre, than a Chinese or an American one.

Et toi?

Guet-apens

There is something particularly horrifying in the idea of setting a trap or organizing an ambush against those whose job it is to protect us. Yet that is what is happening in our second month of lockdown here in France.

I was horrified to learn in the news yesterday that police are being targeted by groups bored by confinement in the Paris suburbs. The media call such acts ‘guets-apens’ (pronounced the same in plural or singular: get app-on), which means n ambush or trap.

Years ago French urban planning in all its wisdom created many ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) or ‘cités’ (projects or housing estates) around major cities like Paris and Lyon. In what was once thought of as modern, these high-density living areas of apartment towers were built, some not so long ago, around roads and hypermarkets rather than parks and communities. The model was presumably American but it doesn’t translate well. In France these low-income areas are a socio-economic disaster. Chronic unemployment, immigration, gangs: basically it’s the whole gamut of urban decay.

Now, with people stuck indoors, and many out of work, these areas are like a powder keg. And it seems a match has been struck.

I get it. I do. It’s starting to feel like forever since we were allowed to go about our business freely in France. For those crammed in apartments, with little or no access to the outdoors, May 11th is just too far away. There’s some relief in sight: kids will go back to school in waves next month, starting with the youngest classes and finally the lycéens. But it’s not enough to defuse the time bomb of pent-up frustration.

This video pulled from YouTube tells a story of what the police are facing. Here they are the target of mortar fireworks. It follows an earlier incident in which a driver refused to stop for a police check and sped away before abandoning the vehicle and running off, leaving four children alone in the car; thankfully they were not injured but it set off a series of riots.

And it’s not the only incident. In the cités especially north of Paris, bored kids go out on scooters and race around in ‘rodeos’ that drive the neighbours to distraction. This escalates to setting bins and cars on fire. The police are called and voilà…un guet-apens. They are shot at, or get bricks or Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Reinforcements are called in, rubber bullets and tear gas are used. It’s a potentially explosive set of circumstances that could easily escalate into full blown riots at a time when police and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point.

The above incident happened in Grigny last week, a suburb south of Paris. Many years ago when we first moved to France I worked in nearby Evry, a local hub for business, teaching English at Berlitz. It is a pretty area, with a lovely forest (Forêt de Sénart) and convenient access to Paris. We briefly considered settling there before deciding to move south to Lyon, which aside from its obvious charms has its own problems but on a smaller scale.

As we enter our final weeks of this confinement (and who knows if there will be others?), and as the weather gets warmer and temperatures soar, I hope that these incidents will remain unfortunate exceptions and not the beginning of deeper discontent.

It feels like we are all trapped in a guet-apens by this coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need solidarity for those who are suffering from this terrible disease, and especially all those in the police and medical professions who are working so hard to keep us healthy and safe.

How are you feeling?

E dans l’o

I never learned Latin. The dead languages were considered passé in the public education system when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. Latin was relegated to religious study. I often regret this lack. It would have been helpful to understand the root meanings of many French words.

I’ve only just discovered that in French the combination of ‘o’ and ‘e’ as œ is called ‘e dans l’o’. The funny thing is that when spoken this way it sounds like ‘oeufs dans l’eau’ (eggs in water). It’s an easy mnemonic and a fun way of describing this feisty little coupling of vowels in French.

In these times of confinement, of being stuck together, I am oddly moved by the poetry of this union. ‘Cœur’ offers the perfect example; o is joined to e just as hearts are joined in love. Old friends and lovers, siblings and kindred spirits who know each other intimately even after years of absence. This is the beauty of e dans l’o.

And there are so many other words with œ that represent the coming together of efforts or things: œuvre, a work of art or body of work; chœur, a choir; vœu, a wish; nœud, a knot.

Photo by Will O on Unsplash

I saw an œuvre last week that stirred my cœur as such things rarely do. A beautiful, original, heart-stopping film that filled me with sorrow and joy, while reminding me that what we are going through right now is nothing. Nothing at all.

It was a real discovery, having never seen any of the director/writer/actor’s work. Now I look forward to watching more. Taika Waititi has a unique talent for blending the dramatic with the comic. Just exactly my cup of tea.

Perhaps isolation gives us a different point of view on things we take for granted. Little things. A beautiful day. A cup of tea. A call from a friend.

Πis a small thing. Yet even tiny things can achieve a great deal. Like a virus wreaking havoc on the world as we know it. This tiny combination of cells is behind the pandemic that is bringing our economy to a halt, ripping lives apart, making a mockery of politics.

But it works both ways. By joining together in our efforts, by caring for one another, perhaps we can each make a difference. However small.

Whatever you do today, do it with cœur.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

Has anything moved you lately?