AUXERRE, France — I was in Paris when President Trump declared the travel ban for European travelers on March 12. I had just been issued my new visa for a six-month internship in New York City, which I’d been waiting on for months. I booked the last Paris-New York plane, filled up my suitcase with an analgesic, doliprane (just in case), and headed to the airport.
While I was flying, President Emmanuel Macron declared that the Covid-19 situation in France “was the most serious health crisis in a century.” All of France’s schools and universities were closed. But nonsensically, the municipal elections to designate all the French mayors for the next six years and planned for that Sunday were maintained.
I finally reached the United States, almost proud to have slipped by Trump’s new restrictions. After two days in New York City, however, I realized that all my French friends had booked flights in the opposite direction, arguing that if something bad should happen, it would be much safer to be in our own country, covered by a social welfare net, rather than to have no access to health care in the US.
Still, I was not convinced this was enough to make me leave. But a stressing and incentivizing e-mail sent by the French consulate in New York City forced me to react. Every French citizen in the US was being strongly encouraged to return to France as soon as possible. Some chartered aircraft were reserved for repatriation, although obviously not enough for everyone. In the panic, on March 18, I booked the most expensive plane ticket I ever paid for and flew back to Paris, masks, gloves and hydroalcoholic gel on.
From the perception of six sunny, restless and exciting months in New York City, while working for the French mission to the United Nations from August to January 2020, I landed back in the deep Burgundy countryside with my family, whom I hadn’t seen for months and hadn’t lived with for years. The first days were tough, as I had to deal with my privileged-girl’s frustration. They were also difficult because the atmosphere, even far from Paris, consisted of fear and suspicion about the virus.
“France is at war,” President Macron said. The total lockdown was decreed — every “nonessential business” was closed, and the hospitals were increasingly and creepily clogged. France was soon struck hard by the pandemic, with one of the highest rates of infection in Europe.
The few times I got out of my house, within the one-kilometer authorized perimeter, with my official “attestation de déplacement” — declaration of displacement — I was tempted to switch sidewalks as soon as I saw someone approaching. Even in my little town, Auxerre, police officers were randomly arresting passersby to check on this little piece of paper on which we were expected to tick the appropriate box to justify our being outside, risking a 135 euro ($150) fine.
My mother, Laurence, a kindergarten teacher, had to continue working with 25 3-year-olds through the Internet. Some children were happy, but she lost track of a lot of them because some of the parents didn’t have access to a proper computer or Internet connection.
To perfect this terrible landscape, the media were showing how French people were undisciplined. Videos of Parisians dancing side by side in the 18th arrondissement, testimony of young people enjoying beers in the streets as the sun was out or even markets crowded with maskless people were continuously broadcasted. We were constantly reminded, too, of how our German and Swedish neighbors were so disciplined and united — that they didn’t have to be put under strict lockdown.
When Italians were portrayed unified, cohesive and romantic, supporting one another by singing along from their balconies, the French were blamed for their natural tendency to not submit to authority.
The massive testing and mask distribution campaign we were promised came late. We were scared and powerless. We hung on to the light at the end of the tunnel: May 11, the day we would be allowed to go outside without our attestation signed or any time limit or distance restrictions from our homes. That was also the day people were told to go back to work. Schools would not be reopened, however, except for primary ones and kindergartens, to free the parents to return to their jobs. This decision inflamed my mother, who was expected to respect the social-distancing rules with 3-year-olds.
When May 11 arrived, I met with friends for drinks — limited to a gathering of nine people, of course. I have never been so happy to get a bottle of a cheap red Burgundy wine to drink lukewarm in a plastic cup, sitting on a dirty sidewalk. Eventually, we were allowed to take the train within a 100-kilometer perimeter, but I transgressed to go to Paris, about 105 miles away, where a weird feeling of liberty floated around the city, as if an apocalypse were ending, although a large majority of Parisians were properly wearing masks and respecting the distancing rules.
In her kindergarten class, my mother acclimatized to the little squares that were drawn on the school playground for the kids to stay in and limit their interactions, though most of the parents wisely decided not to return their children to class until September.
Since June 2, most restrictions have been lifted in France, and life is slowly but pleasantly returning to normal. Masks are still strongly recommended to be worn in public and must be on when using public transportation. Some shops are also requiring that clients wear masks, otherwise they are not allowed in. In restaurants, people are not really wearing them, though, and it seems like la bise is coming back for everyone. (I have started to rekiss my friends’ cheeks as well when I see them.)
Cinemas reopened on June 22, and sports stadiums will reopen in early July, and the only thing that will stay closed until September are nightclubs. The numbers are still with us: as of June 22, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases was 197,008, with nearly 30,000 deaths.
My favorite Parisian café’s terraces reopened and I am enjoying the small things in life. I am not the only one: these tough times made all of us grumpy French realize how lucky we are, marking a new era where we won’t take anything for granted again. That means even drinking a too-expensive coffee in a loud, crowded restaurant.
This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs or global health relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna, Chicago, Singapore, Madrid, Beirut, Geneva, Santiago, Chile, Lilongwe, Malawi and Panama City, Panama.
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Léontine Gallois is an international relations and journalism student at Sciences-Po, based in Paris. She has two undergraduate degrees, in history and political science, from the Sorbonne. She has been contributing to PassBlue for six months, especially on the production of UN-Scripted, a podcast series on UN and global affairs. She speaks French, English and Spanish.