To say that France without cafes and restaurants is like Britain without pubs is a gross understatement. More and more British communities, after all, are abandoning their pubs. France without cafes and restaurants is like Britain without pubs, potholes, baked beans, American coffee franchises, overcrowded trains, padlocked public lavatories, Etonian ministers, unfunny stand-ups and larcenous executive remuneration. It is not like France at all.
Cafes and restaurants stage French social life and punctuate the French day. Small wonder that Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, having earlier ordered the closure from Monday of all schools, colleges and universities, should confidently expect that the weekend addition to the list of cafes and restaurants, plus places of entertainment and all retailers except food shops, tabacs and pharmacies, would finally persuade citizens to vacate the streets and stop doubling the coronavirus infection rate every three days.
'Stay at home – it's as simple as that,' pleaded Jérȏme Salomon, Director-General of Health. This has been the advice for some weeks. France's containment strategy is to keep people apart, especially the young who congregate more and notice symptoms less. But it hasn't worked out that way, especially here in a region that doesn't like instructions from Paris at the best of times. Hence President Macron's televised address on Monday evening, formally consigning his nation to house arrest.
The following has been the pathway to lockdown, here in the Languedoc.
Just a week ago, we were elbowing our way around a seafood festival in Palavas-les-Flots that couldn't have been more densely thronged without mass suffocation. The cafe tables in Montpellier's numerous squares were continuing to buzz with nocturnal life, the delivery cyclists weaving through the crowds with their usual insouciance, and the trams crammed to the doors with millennials for whom virus means something wrong with your phone.
Even this past weekend, as the cafe clampdown began, we found our neighbourhood market bustling on Saturday morning with the usual quota of stalls and customers, and not a mask or glove in sight. Nor was anything much in the way of personal infection protection in evidence among the crowds in the Carrefour hypermarket, though the dried pasta and rice aisles had been picked surgically clean.
On Sunday, the delightful antiques market on the Peyrou promenade at the rim of Montpellier's Écusson (old town) had drawn its usual large numbers of browsers (and small number of buyers), whose children scampered happily among the stalls in the spring sunshine. Strolling on into the old town itself, we found an uneasy mix of defiance and compliance, with the latter only just starting to manifest. To be fair, Montpellier on a Sunday morning is never exactly a Cecil B de Mille crowd scene, and the tranquillity of the winding medieval streets did not seem exceptional. But there were differences here and there, and their very inconsistency lent them an eerie quality.
The indoor market at Place Castellane was functioning, though its counterparts elsewhere in the city were reportedly not. The doors were locked at Montpellier's ugly cathedral, a note proclaiming that, until further notice, mass would be celebrated online only, though certain churches would continue to hear confessions. In the student quartier, the little bistros offering the young burgers, tacos and pizza were opening up for lunch. But the city's vast main square, the Place de la Comedie, looked twice its usual size because the forests of tables and chairs that normally line its fringes were locked away. The tourist information office announced itself shut until restrictions were lifted. An accordionist busked La Vie en Rose
to an acre of empty paving. Even so, plenty of people still milled around the Three Graces fountain, Montpellier's favourite meeting place.
At the far end of the Comedie, couples enjoyed their usual Sunday morning constitutional amid the manicured flower beds and fountains of the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. But the open air cafes, where the stroll normally culminates in a glass of the chilled rosé, were bare and shuttered. The great Museé Fabre art gallery and its photography equivalent, the Pavillon Populaire, were bolted and barred. Only one flower kiosk had opened, and it was packing up. We bought our usual carnations, and the stall owner added an extra bunch and some fine greenery to the bouquet as a gift, because they would now be closing indefinitely and the stock thrown away. We wished her luck.
Meanwhile, bizarrely, at polling stations across the city, the first round of municipal elections was taking place, with latex-gloved tellers herding voters into roped-off queues. To no-one's surprise, turnout was a record low, down 20 points from the last time and with the elderly notably absent. Macron has now postponed the second round, leaving some mayors elected but many anxiously awaiting eventual run-offs. He has also suspended his fiercely contested retirement reforms.
All weekend our email filled up with notifications that the various concerts and events we'd been hoping to attend were cancelled. My wife's French conversation groups were suspended. People texted to postpone planned get-togethers (to the private pleasure of that member of our household inexplicably known as the Misanthropic Old Git).
By Monday morning, Philippe's restrictions were in full force… up to a point. All the specified premises were closed, and those exempted were limiting access to two or three people at a time. An unhappy-looking queue had formed outside our local Utile mini-mart, and a more determined one at the artisan bakers, intent on upholding the French patriotic obligation to carry a baguette around at all times. Outside the main post office, a queue stretched around the block, as though Johnny Hallyday were back in town. The GP had a notice on her door, listing the familiar symptoms and forbidding anyone suffering from them to enter the surgery: they must phone her instead.
But still there were none of the deserted boulevards filmed in other countries. The shopping streets were bereft of working shops, but alive with pedestrians. Tradesmen still bustled in and out of their white vans, dogs were still emptied on the pavements, beggars still wished you good day. Trams ran at their usual frequency, if less than their usual occupancy. Takeaway food joints were gearing up for a busy day, having stacked stools on their indoor tables to escape the restaurant ban. There were more facemasks in evidence than previously – perhaps one person in every 30 or 40 – but they were the ineffectual kind sold in DIY stores. In this outdoors culture, people had instinctively come out to see what was going on. It felt more like a public holiday than a public health emergency.
Overnight, though, the French death toll had risen by 36 to 127. By the evening it was 148. 'Nous sommes en guerre,' (we are at war
), Macron told the nation. He said it repeatedly throughout his address. There will be 100,000 police on hand to keep us in our homes, €135 fines for those found on the streets without good reason, military back-up for health staffs, €300 billion to keep businesses afloat. The phoney war is over, such is clear. What victory might look like remains less so.