We were at our favourite roadside fruit stall, buying Quercy melons for our breakfast and luscious white nectarines, when the Prime Minister's motorcade roared by. No-one paid it a great deal of attention. You can never do better than the French if you want a show of indifference.
Truth be told, the flashing lights and formation motorcycles seemed a bit ostentatious for Jean Castex, a John Swinney lookalike whose track from hothouse education at the Sciences-Po and École Nationale d'Administration through the upper civil service, to 12 years as Mayor of Prades and finally last month to the Premiership, has been fast and smooth, but scarcely colourful. He owes his occupancy of the Hȏtel Matignon, not to any obvious inadequacies on the part of his predecessor, Édouard Phillipe (he of the strangely piebald beard), but to the convention that any President who craves re-election remakes his government, and often his policies, in mid-term.
But if Castex's motorcade failed to attract much notice, the message he had come to deliver in an intensive care unit in Montpellier did strike home. The preceding weekend, he said, had brought nearly 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 to the fore. The daily average of new infections had risen in a week from 1,056 to 1,640, compared with a figure of 272 at the time the initial lockdown was lifted in late May. 'For around two weeks, the epidemiological situation… has been developing in the wrong direction,' said Castex. 'No-one wants to live through that again.'
The effect of his remarks was to stamp the government's imprimatur on the warning the scientists have been issuing with mounting vehemence: that France needs to brace itself for a second wave of the pandemic. In official terms, what is called the 'seuil de vigilance', the infection level that triggers formal pandemic alert precautions, is 20 new cases per day per 100,000 of population. The national rate has now reached that figure, and in some regions is more than double.
However, the bigger concern for the authorities is not the rate of new infections but their ubiquity. For much of the summer, the virus was largely confined to Paris and the east of the country. Suddenly, it is cropping up everywhere, at a rate of some 25 new clusters a day. Perhaps this is why Castex chose the south-west, previously minimally affected, in which to make his statement. A few hours earlier, a significant outbreak had been detected in Toulouse: two days later, there was a major one here in Montpellier.
Castex attributed the resurgence to a loss of public focus, especially among the young. A small, but still too numerous, minority, had failed to maintain 'vigilance, discipline and solidarity', he said. 'We are seeing too many family gatherings, with friends, or festivals, which are places where the virus can spread. Contamination levels are developing today among young people.' He promised new efforts to communicate with and educate youngsters, who were prone to feel 'less vulnerable'.
No doubt there is much truth in this, though the young might justly resent being singled out quite so pointedly. The sudden spread of infections across the map is due also to the French way of family holidays. Not only do the French generally take their holidays at the same time – in August – but they do it in the same country: France. The typical French holiday involves packing the family and the dog(s) into the car, and driving often prodigious distances to a holiday home, familial redoubt, or camping complex in another part of the hexagon. There you eat, drink, cavort and make merry with other holidaymakers for two weeks before driving home again. It is hard to think of a better way to help a pandemic bust its geographical bounds.
I conducted an unscientific, but persuasive, survey during a visit the other day to our local beach, a popular strand of fine sand stretching 10km from Carnon to Grande Motte. In the car park that runs its length, I reckoned an average of three different départements in every five number-plates. Only rarely were there two successive cars from the same département, and I would not be surprised to learn that we had collected all 101 by the time we left. An isolation ward it ain't.
So UK ministers, trying to drum up public enthusiasm for holidays in Margate rather than Marbella, might bear in mind that 'staycationing' too has its infection-spreading risks – as well as reducing the opportunities for pretending that Britannia's troubles are all the fault of filthy foreigners.
Even so, the latest UK quarantine edict has been resented here by more than just the holidaying British families whose lives it has abruptly upended, or by the tourism businesses it will hurt (not least, incidentally, the many British expats who rely on income from gite holidays marketed in the UK: still, who cares about expats?). This comes on top of the harm already done by the continual macho mutterings about embargoes that might or might not abruptly occur. Significantly, the number of Brits holidaying in France as the axe fell was, on UK Government figures, just 160,000: this at the very summit of high season, and against a usual annual inflow of up to 12 million UK visitors.
No-one in France denies that the increased volume and spread of COVID outbreaks is a matter for concern. The French are, though, entitled to point out that on many indicators the UK is doing worse
than France: deaths, intensive care admissions and economic devastation, to name but three. The French also test proportionately many more people: one (British) academic estimate puts the real UK infection rate at 10 times the headline figure. So, the quarantine decision was officially described here as 'regrettable', which is code for a facile stunt. It is, after all, not so many weeks since President Macron was having to warn Boris Johnston that he would unilaterally close France's borders with the UK unless Whitehall enforced a meaningful lockdown.
None of which undermines the seriousness of France's own preparations for the anticipated second wave. With new cases now running at 3,000-plus per day and la rentrée – the return of schools and many workplaces – just two weeks off, mayors and prefects are ordering compulsory mask wearing in busy streets, and stricter supervision in indoor public spaces. Often, these practices were being adopted by the public even ahead of official diktat. I received a polite but firm reminder from a municipal cop when I forgot to put on my mask to cut through the station last week. Tram inspectors can impose spot fines for non-mask wearing.
But what if it doesn't work? What if infection continues to spread? For all their reputed wilfulness, French people complied pretty docilely with the spring lockdown, because they recognised its sense; and there is little sign of defiance this time... so far. But the most painful constraints are not yet reintroduced: confinement in the home, shuttered shops and cafes, barricaded parks and beaches. Would a second lockdown hold, should the authorities judge it necessary? Or would it prove impossible to get the toothpaste of relative liberty back in the tube? We all hope not to find out.