Sans Culottes in Locked-Down France – November 2020

I am WFF right now – Working From France. Coming over here for the last chunk of 2020 was a personal Brexit protest. Working and living here has always been a dream of mine – but my French was never good enough to get a job. So it seems ironic that, just as this has become a reality because of completely remote working, the possibility is being taken away.

A Bill just passed by the Parliament in London says that next year I won’t be able to work in France or anywhere else in Europe without a visa, or stay here for more than 90 days in each six-month period. A sad loss. I am also contending with a more temporary restriction of freedom of movement imposed by the lockdown, or ‘confinement’, as it is known in France.

The plan to move to France was first hatched in early 2020, with friends who were equally keen to enjoy the last breath of free movement. We ended up coming over just before the second wave of Covid crashed across the continent. Confinement is strict here and I am not living the French life I had imagined.

It is still hot on sunny days, though cool on clear nights, when we can spot Mars and Jupiter from our terrace through binoculars. I have plenty of work to do (this is not what I am scheduled to be writing today). I am improving my French a little and spending time on my yoga mat. However, I can no longer go out for the big hikes I had planned, or drive to swim in the lake.

You have to have a signed “attestation” in your pocket or on your phone when you go out. Exercise is limited to one hour within one km of your dwelling  – except for hunting which for some reason is exempt. On the short drive to our nearest market town on Sunday, I saw four large groups of hunters, standing around in orange vests, rifles clasped in their arms. I doubt there will be a wild boar left in the country when lockdown is over. Unless, of course,  they chat more than they chassent.

My saving grace is that the time limitation does not apply to shopping. I don’t like supermarkets and prefer to visit the small shops in town, practicing my Allo Allo style French on the shopkeepers. It takes the combined efforts of Madame la bouchere, her husband and the woman who works in the back room to communicate with me.

But all the restaurants and cafes are closed. You can’t so much as sit outside the boulangerie and munch on your croissant. The bookshops are shut. Even little  French towns often have lovely bookshops but they are classed as non-essential. After a clamour by small shopkeepers, the supermarkets have had to cordon off similar merchandise. I didn’t bring many clothes as I started my travels by train, and as an article in my newspaper of choice ‘Aujourd’hui” put it – “Les chips sont plus essentielles que les culottes?” Sacre bleu!  Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot appealed to the French not to buy books on Amazon, but it is of course looking forward to profiting from a Black Friday bonanza.

The cathedral is open all day for private reflection and prayer and I often seek refuge in its cool interior, looking up at banks of vivid stained glass windows. There is hardly ever anyone else to be seen, but fresh flowers and racks of burning candles indicate there are other visitors. On the occasion that someone else enters, I do find myself listening intently, thinking about the attack in Nice, relieved to hear the unhurried footsteps of the women who look after the church.

The French lockdown came on the heels of the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty, Macron’s robust defence of French values at Paty’s funeral, including refusing to renounce the satirical cartoons, was backed by other European leaders though not, unsurprisingly, by the man a Biden adviser famously called “that shape-shifting creep” Boris Johnson. But the response from some Arab leaders, including Erdogan who did his best to make political capital from the attack was furious, with demos, effigy burning and calls for boycotts on French goods. A cartoon satirising Erdogan in Charlie Hebdo caused more controversy. Macron is pushing to strengthen the external border of the Schengen zone, to increase security. More attacks on France are feared.

So lockdown came to a France that has more than one reason for anxiety and it provides an opportunity for a new level of police surveillance. It is widely supported it seems. The financial compensation package here is relatively generous – including a ‘solidarity fund’ for small businesses. What protests there have been about lockdown are arguing for it to be strengthened – schools are open but some teachers have gone on strike over health risks. High school students protested about crowded conditions in classrooms and in one case the police used tear gas against them.

The French ‘confinement’ was originally scheduled to last until December 1. On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Cstex announced that it will be extended in some form until mid-December. I may be back in Scotland before culottes and cafe au lait are freely available again. However, as the last sands of this extraordinary year spin through the hour-glass, I am trying to make the most of this – possibly my last – chance to WFF.