The other day, two Nobel laureate economists, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, stirred up a fine old stushie here in France by writing in Le Monde
that it would be a good idea to lock the country down for three weeks from early December to forestall a likely spike in COVID infections, due to falling temperatures and heightened social activity in the run-up to Christmas.
It took only 24 hours of public uproar for the health minister, Olivier Véran, to head for the nearest TV studio and declare that he had no such present plans. 'I project day-by-day, with my data sets, so I can offer the public the safest way to avoid confinement [the preferred term here for lockdown], and so that they can spend family holidays in good conditions'. It sounded rather like a warning to presumptuous economists to stay in their box and leave public health policy to the grown-ups.
What was astonishing about it – at least, to this bemused expat – was that it came as news to me that France has
a run-up to Christmas. Duflo and Banerjee say they're worried about the infectious consequences of 'long moments of socialising around a table' (not to mention singing) and 'prepar[ing] for the holidays by going to see the grandparents'. I had no idea any of that went on.
Compared with the volcano of kitsch that engulfs Britain from early November onwards, Christmas in France is all but imperceptible. No-one populates their lawn with illuminated reindeer. Towns do not string tat from lampposts. Christmas cards are family-only. There are no office parties, or club booze-ups, no pools of festive vomit in the streets. Few shops bother with elaborate window displays. French radio, while deplorable in many respects, does not blanket the airwaves with festive muzak: you can go right through December without hearing a single jangly ditty. There is now reluctant acquiescence in the Germanic indulgence of Christmas trees, but you only see them when they're put out for recycling in late January. People would no more dream of displaying them at the window than they would of floodlighting their dustbins.
All this suits a godless old misanthrope like me down to the ground. Christopher Hitchens was spot-on when he likened Christmas in the UK or US to life in a one-party state. A French Christmas is an unregimented, private affair. You are not required to prove merriment. There are two key elements: family and food. Markets and supermarkets fill up with exotic foodstuffs, notably a bewildering array of differently-purposed patisserie, but this is bought to be discreetly consumed at gatherings of the extended family, accompanied by alcohol chosen for quality not quantity.
By Boxing Day, people are returning to work and life to normal, without evident regret. Perhaps French people find normality more agreeable than Brits do. Last time we spent Christmas here, our concierge agency turned up on Christmas morning to take out the wheelie bins. Bakers, butchers and greengrocers were open and busy. Various seasonal ceremonies, many of a cultural or pious nature, continue throughout January, but without noise or vulgarity.
Still, understated though a French Christmas looks to Brits, it is clearly important to the French, and they are touchy about what COVID might do to it. The sensitivity is understandable, given the depredations that this miserable year has inflicted on so many other cherished aspects of French life. Take, for example, the ceremonial three (four in some localities) kisses, known as la bise.
It is sometimes said that no-one in France makes friends after adolescence. But acquaintanceship, if shallower than friendship, is wide, and governed by strict rules of manners and etiquette which the incomer had better learn fast. Breaches do not go unremarked. We gave lunch a while back to an elderly Parisian lady, who did not hesitate to rebuke me, in my own home, for not keeping my hands on the table between courses. A graceful but firm encyclical followed on how to arrange one's cutlery when one had finished.
Where lightly-acquainted Brits passing in the street will describe the weather to one another, in France you shake hands. Acquaintance is tactile. Anyone you know better than slightly will expect la bise: right cheek, left, right again. I've seen local concerts delayed for 15 minutes while everyone circulates to dispense la bise. Gender, incidentally, does not matter. Watch two teams of large hairy men meet up to play boules, and it's like the back room of the Bada Bing!
But the pandemic put a brutal stop to these courtesies, and the French haven't worked out how to replace them. In a country that's never slow to infuse its foibles with patriotic significance, this is a big concern. A clumsy dither of fumbles, nods and gestures has developed. At Montpellier's first post-lockdown orchestral concert, I watched the triumphant new mayor greet a front row of dignitaries, none of whom quite knew how to respond. Eventually, they settled on fist-bumps, a manoeuvre that looks almost as daft as the heron dance of rubbing elbows.
I ended a recent medical consultation by unthinkingly shaking the doctor's hand, in gratitude for his patience with my lack of medical vocabulary. He looked as if I had spat on his stethoscope. I just knew that, the moment I was gone, he was diving for the hand gel.
Older French people tell you that the young have anyway become careless of manners, as older people tell you everywhere. What is hard to know is whether, once the virus subsides, this generation gap will emerge more pronounced. Yes, possibly. Still, the young are safeguarding at least one venerable French tradition: nocturnal metaphysics. In a city of temperate climate and 70,000 students, hostelries normally buzz well into the small hours with animated discussion of the eternal dichotomies. Now the Prefect has ordered that all bars and restaurants be shut and shuttered by 10pm. But his curfew has foundered on the determination of the young philosophers to continue the dialectic around a bottle in public parks and squares. The municipal police are being sent in to chase what the local newspaper charmingly calls 'students and night-owls' off to bed.
A more troubling question, if only economically, is what becomes of France's love of eating out. It was already in retreat from a decade of falling incomes. In our years of coming to Montpellier we've seen restaurant and café numbers decline steadily. Many more have stayed shut since lockdown. Those that re-open are rarely hitting even socially-distanced capacity. Once, France made time for a morning aperitif, a congenial lunch, and dinner out every few nights. Now few have the money or the time, and anyway the young prefer a taco on the move. Maybe lockdown has reawakened French élan in home cooking, though it's hard to see clear evidence in markets or shops.
So will that infuriating, fussy, reflective, carnaptious, proud, mannerly bundle of beautiful eccentricities that is France survive the pandemic onslaught? At this stage, one can only hope. Nothing stirs passions like the suggestion that essential French ways – le patrimoine – are under threat. If people can get worked up about as minimalist a tradition as the French Christmas, all is surely not yet lost.