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?

Le bon coin

If you have anything to buy or sell in France, there is only one place to do it: Le Bon Coin, popularly known as Leboncoin.

I stumbled on this essential piece of information when we were exploring ways to sell our house. A real estate agent assured me, in the knowing way that French people do, that Leboncoin was ‘l’incontournable’ site for selling properties.

“Le Bon Coin?” I asked, surprised and somewhat appalled. It seemed a little, well, ringard. Tacky. Why would I list my nice home for sale alongside a bunch of old furniture and used car deals of the week?

“Et oui,” he shrugged in that very French way that says, Hey, life is crazy, but who are we to question it? It’s the place where the most buyers go to look for real estate as well as everything else. “Ça marche.”

It turns out Le Bon Coin is indeed a ‘good spot’ for literally anything. From jobs to houses to farm equipment. Along with the odd mammoth tooth and stuffed pony. So you can rent a holiday flat while booking language lessons and car-sharing on the way.

After hearing the same thing from two other real estate advisors and finally deciding to sell our property on our own, we dutifully placed the first ad for our house on Leboncoin. And while we also put the ad in a few other places, they were all pretty useless. Leboncoin was indeed l’incontournable.

The site owes its success to a ‘free’ ad formula with paid options for ‘les petites annonces’ (classified ads). The French love anything free, so that strategy was a good start. However, when you really want to sell something it’s easy to fall into the temptation to pay, either to add more photos or boost the visibility of your ad. And that’s where they make their money.

I dug into the story behind Le Bon Coin and it’s rather interesting. Owned by a Norwegian conglomerate with similar sites across Europe, it started up in 2006. It seems the early success of the concept is being further fuelled by COVID-19 and the growing trend to doing everything online. The company recently bought out eBay in France.

“We sold our house on Le Bon Coin,” my husband confided to the nice gentleman who came over last week to buy our leather sofa. Which we’ve also listed on the site, along with a bunch of other stuff we aren’t moving to our new place. We were amazed when the buyer showed up after driving for two hours and paid the requested 200 euros in cash. Another young couple had come the day before and left with our dining table.

I was also amazed that my ad for our washing machine, which works perfectly well but was purchased in 2008 so is selling dirt cheap, attracted so many potential buyers. Unfortunately they all wanted to come and get it right away and I still have plenty of dirty laundry to keep it busy for another few weeks. So that’s pending. There’s been almost no interest in the tumble dryer though. The French still mostly line dry their washing.

It is humbling to part with your property, whether it’s a home or furniture. There you are with your stuff, the items you live with each day, and suddenly it’s splayed all over a public website. One minute you’re sitting on your sofa enjoying a cup of tea and your favourite show and the next, you have nowhere to sit. And don’t tell this to any potential buyers but I am terrible at negotiating prices. This is true whether buying or selling. Either I demand too much or pay full price without negotiating, or I cave too quickly and take a low-ball offer. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I have no problem with money per se, but haggling over it makes me feel slimy and cheap.

The fact is that moving to a new place is an opportunity to streamline: out with the old, in with the new. And we are downsizing so we have no need, or room, for so much stuff. Plus, we’ll have no garden, so we have a whole load of garden tools and equipment going spare. I haven’t tackled that ad yet.

Anyone want to buy a lawn mower? 

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?

Antihéros

You may have heard the name of Professor Didier Raoult in the media of late. He is an avid proponent of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

What you probably don’t know about the eminent Dr. Raoult is that he epitomizes the French love of the anti-hero: a renegade who doesn’t pander to authority, a medical doctor, a microbiologist and an eminent researcher who is among the most respected in his field. Raoult is also, most importantly to the French, a free thinker and forthright speaker who says his truth without compromise. That truth has been rather uncomfortable for many people over the past months of pandemic. It has divided the country along with the international scientific community.

The fact that he wears his hair long, collects art and generally comes across as an ageing ‘baba cool’ (the French expression for hippie), only adds to his charm. Along with the fact that he was born in Africa and hails from Marseille, a city known for being loved or hated in equal measure.

I had every reason to dislike him. Already early in the confinement the media were hinting that Raoult’s claims for a cure for COVID-19 were overstated, that there was little evidence to support his approach and that — most dubious of all — President Trump was touting it as a miracle cure. I was sceptical at best about the fellow. He sounded like what I hate most: a jumped-up counter-culture figure with a huge ego.

“I’m against information before knowledge. Our work is to obtain knowledge.”

Then I saw him being interviewed. In French. And my preconceived dislike evaporated. Didier Raoult speaks with surprising humanity and humility, advances arguments that are sound and does it all while expressing equal doses of conviction and reasonable doubt. Here is a thinker, a doer and someone who embraces his role as a clinician. That is, a doctor having direct contact with patients rather than being involved with theoretical or laboratory studies.

This is how he has defended his refusal to conduct a formal clinical trial during a pandemic. I must admit I sympathize with this view. It seems rather harsh to ask people who are diagnosed with a life-threatening viral disease to accept the risk of being randomized on a placebo rather than receiving the drug that could save their lives. Of course such trials are essential to medical science and the very foundation of our approach to safely prescribing drugs. But Raoult’s point is this: you cannot compare chloroquine, a drug that has been through clinical approval and prescribed as a treatment for multiple diseases for many years, to an as-yet unapproved drug that has yet to be found safe in humans.

All of which has led to Professor Raoult (‘professor’ in French trumps ‘doctor’ as a title) being elevated to the level of (anti)hero amongst the French populace. His ideas feed into the strongly held belief that Big Pharma is evil, the government cannot be trusted to tell the truth and that good, old-fashioned remedies will cure most ills.

The fact that recent studies have tended not to support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 has further divided opinion. Just this week, the government announced it would no longer authorize the prescription of the drug to treat coronavirus. But Raoult’s supporters believe him when he explains that the so-called studies are not randomized trials but observational, that dosing is an issue and that his protocol, used in his hospital, of treating patients in the early stages of the disease (and not when they have already developed a serious case), with hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin, along with zinc, works.

Here’s an interview (from mid-April). Long, and not great quality but worth a watch if you’re interested. Note: he speaks English like a Frenchman!

Time will tell if he is right. In the meantime, if you were to ask the average French person on the street who they would trust to treat them if they were to catch the virus, you know the answer.

Who would you trust?

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?