the old normal in Paris

The Old Normal is Alive and Well in Paris

I’ve spent my entire life in countries with unrestricted freedom of movement.  Not only did those countries let me go where I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as I wasn’t breaking laws, the countries were indifferent to my location on a given day at a given time.  Insofar as my movement encouraged commerce and the support of local businesses, which in turn paid taxes, these governments might actually encourage me to get out and about.

I think it was because I’ve always taken freedom of movement for granted that I felt that energetic frisson in my bones and brain this last weekend, as our local parks opened and restaurants prepared to open their outdoor terraces here in Paris.  While there had been an energy and buzz in the air since the first days of deconfinement, this last weekend was different.  Normal service wasn’t quite restored, but it felt quite normal.  The streets and parks were packed (Buttes Chaumont, a very large park near my home, was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, and that was with its restaurants and bars closed).  The majority of the population across 6 arrondissements that I visited one day (specifically the 19th, 11th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd) were unmasked and not social distancing.  Witnessing this has been like watching a light turn on in a dark room: one moment there was coronavirus, the next moment it was summer.

It’s important to note that it is only in and around Paris, and only for the next few weeks that we will continue to see these restrictions, which include: schools reopening with capped class sizes so some students will continue to attend remotely; swimming pools, campsites, and theaters closed; gatherings in public places limited to groups of ten (enforced by roving police).  The rest of France, host to fewer cases and a lower infection rate, are “back to normal.”

The much-mooted “second wave” which the media seemed to almost hope for so they could continue to be one of the few “essential” workers hasn’t materialized, and the president of the Scientific Council advising the French government has said that even in a worst-case scenario a second lockdown would be unacceptable for a number of reasons.  Given that sunshine and fresh air are extremely effective (and free) deterrents against viruses of all kinds, not just the recent celebrity COVID-19, one wonders why we didn’t deconfine sooner.  We were, in part, witness to the worst tendency of science throughout the ages: stubborn adherence to old beliefs and measures taken when we had very little data and information, combined with a refusal to modify hypotheses when in receipt of new information.  This tendency continues on into the private lives of some of my friends and acquaintances who have been scared into a private “extended edition” confinement.  I try to respect the turbulent emotions some of them have felt in the past months, so I avoid asking them: “If masks work, why do we social distance?  If social distancing works, why do we wear masks?  If both work, why did we lock down?”

Some of the fearful ones do venture out, with all the protection you can imagine: gloves, masks, gel, sometimes even a visor as well. Some of the younger set, determined to be as fashionable as they are “safe,” have bought designer cotton masks–not necessarily helpful against viruses, but they certainly go well with their summer outfits.  This is an unsurprising historical (and humorous) echo for anyone who has visited the Museum of the Liberation of Paris, which has stills of models sporting gas masks as accessories for that season’s release of new fashions.

I’ve even been witness to a few exchanges in which the French have lectured each other, imitating the health and safety briefings of the weeks gone by.  On the first day of deconfinement I was on a bus, masked.  A young man entered the bus without one.  About half a minute later, two middle-aged adults gave muffled speech to complement their camouflaged disapproving looks.  “You need to wear a mask, sir,” she gently chided in French.  Her interlocutor, probably in his late 20s, gave her the typical gallic shrug.  “It’s not just for my protection, but yours too…” she droned on, and he listened politely, but in the vein of, “I’ve heard all the same stuff you have, lady, and I’ve decided to act otherwise.”

That’s the reality of a free country: you are continuously surrounded by others who differ from you in many ways.  In those first few days there was a tension of the “good” mask-wearers who wore them even though they weren’t required outside of public transportation or in certain stores in contrast to the “bad” mask-ignorers who only wore them when required to.  But as day passed on to day, and masks were optional in more and more shops and businesses, the French resumed their normal cultural attitudes, formed over centuries of living in this country.

No longer being legally required to stay home or forced to justify leaving them, the French interpret “optional” as “don’t bother.”  Mask wearing may have been hip two weeks ago, but as summer continues to come on, social pressure will work the other way, and it will take a deeply rooted moral conviction to remain masked, probably rooted in a Noah complex, that a flood is coming and we mask-ignorers are to be pitied for our ignorance.  I stopped predicting early on in this crisis, but I am willing to predict that we will have a summer this year, as long as we don’t conspire to ruin it for ourselves.

We’ll be harvesting lessons from the bad dream that was most of the last ten weeks for years, but it’s not too soon to draw a few now:

  • Given sufficient economic incentives, the French will obey the law.  Even the Yellow Vests, undeterred by Christmas, stayed home during the entire confinement.
  • Temporary natural crises do not make for permanent cultural changes.  Despite the claims of the “new normal” and “it will be a long road back” all appearances indicate that the current normal looks remarkably like the old normal.  In a few weeks (which seems rather short to those who were shut in for months) theaters will reopen and indoor service at restaurants will augment the outdoor service already happening.  Indeed, the biggest priority for many French, apart from standing in long lines to get back into IKEA, will be planning summer vacations, not just here in France, but in the greater EU.
  • Scientific theories ultimately come up against economic realities.  Now-leaked documents from both the German and Danish governments indicate that these authorities considered the reaction to the coronavirus to be overblown even as they implemented policies that directly contradicted these assessments.  France reopened not just because the number of sick were below a certain level, but because the money already committed to bailouts of the auto, tourism, and restaurant industries were mounting to unbelievable levels, and all those bailouts are premised on future tax dollars, which can only be generated by functional, not locked-down, economies.
  • Too many of us were willingly puppeted by the media.  As the slogans morphed from “stay home save lives” to “black lives matter” in the US and abroad, what was commonly prompted one week (avoid crowds, wear masks, social distance) immediately and seamlessly was opposed the following week (march in protest, gather in force, do what you want).  If such mass gatherings now don’t deliver a second wave, we may have the protestors to thank for volunteering to test a hypothesis: has COVID-19 disappeared or is at least in abeyance?

In the meantime, many of us are glad, after months of confinement, to get back to an important notion that should be taken for granted in a free society: the ability to make our own informed choices about what we do and how we conduct our lives.  No man is an island, and everything we do, even in the privacy of our homes, has an effect on our society as a whole, no matter how much those who deny the existence of the soul would tell us.  The states that slavishly imitated China’s extreme lockdown procedures would have us believe that they are so very different from the communist Chinese, but the past three months have shown us that the same lie that animates the Chinese government has spread and infected the West as well: the State knows best.  If those states were properly oriented toward the Permanent Things and eternity, perhaps we might believe them, but since they are manifestly not, we may not have to wait too long before they subject us to such a lockdown again…for our own good, of course.

Photo taken at Cafe de la Poste, in the Marais, where I wrote this piece and broke my fast of sitting on a Paris terrasse.

This piece originally appeared on Front Porch Republic.

French aid coronavirus

Coronavirus Financial Aid for Small Businesses Arrives

This is the time of year when I often have to remind non-EU nationals who live in France most of the year that they need to file taxes.  With all that has been going on I was particularly glad that not only had my US personal and corporate returns been filed, but that my American business accountant had quickly filed for the small business aid package offered by the US government and two of my US corporations had gotten the initial grant ahead of possible additional loan consideration.  Additionally the much trumpeted $1200 American bailout check has arrived at a US address and will be deposited this week.  My French business has also received aid for the month of March.  At a time of year when I’m used to having to calculate what I owe to two different countries, it’s an odd feeling, to say the least, to be receiving funds from two different governments, but hey, when you pay taxes in two different countries, it’s not an unreasonable (nor undeserved) outcome.

French Small Business Aid

I’m a member of the National Union of Journalists (a UK-based organization) and the Paris chapter was incredibly helpful in getting information out to members early on and throughout the shutdown here in France.  The aid which came through from the French government last week was the result of a fairly straightforward form available at the French tax site.  You log into your account (which you have if you’ve ever filed a return here in France) and then navigate to your secure inbox and select a dropdown specifically designed for Covid-19 aid for your small business.

You are then taken to a one page digital form in which you attest that:

  • Your business was open before 1 February 2020
  • It was not in liquidation before 1 March 2020
  • Its workforce was less than or equal to ten employees
  • Your turnover last year was less than 1,000,000€
  • As a managing partner of the company, you did not take more than 60,000€ in dividend income last year
  • You do not hold either a CDI (employment contract) or a pension which results in your receiving more than 800€/month
  • If you own multiple companies, you are still subject to the above attestations (meaning that if you had more than ten employees among your multiple businesses, or if their combined turnover was more than $1M, etc. you are disqualified)

You then fill in your name, address, email, phone number and SIRET (tax ID number for your business) and then state whether your business was closed or suffered a loss of turnover of at least 50% from a comparable time last year.

Now interestingly enough the lockdown occurred in the middle of March and while it did interrupt the onboarding of a new writing client I had in Paris, my March 2020 wasn’t a particularly bad month, but March 2019 had happened to be a very good month for the business, and as such, I was able to apply for aid.  The money was directly deposited into my bank account last month, and I just repeated the same process for the month of April.  The French government has said that this program will be in place until the end of May, so that’s been a big help to small business owners like myself.

This program served as a gatekeeper for a second funding program, which offered assistance to anyone who didn’t qualify under the first program.  Since I had qualified for the first program I was ineligible to apply for the second program, but the application was simple and straightforward as well.  It was one page and was to be submitted through the URSSAF system.  The questions were more probing, however, as they wanted 2018 business income as well as certification that this was your only stream of income and that losing it jeopardized your ability to cover your basic needs.

Outside of small business owners, millions of French are on 75-85% of their regular pay (or more) due to government programs so while others have marveled at how “calm” the French have been during lockdown, I can guarantee that such calmness would not have been on display if these programs were not in place and being efficiently executed, which begs the question, if the French can have such efficient bureaucracy in a crisis, what’s the problem during “normal” times? 🙂

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

This article originally appeared as part of a series for Dispatches Europe.

Quarantined in the City of Light

While Paris started the year in the midst of a transportation strike that the strikers by and large lost in the end, there was only a brief respite for the hospitality industry as the specter of the global panic pandemic landed in Europe and then worked its way west.  It’s now our second week in a “lockdown” that seems to get progressively more stringent.

For those who follow the news you may be familiar with the attestation that now needs to be either written by hand or printed and filled out: it’s our “permission slip” we laughably sign ourselves and though I have not yet been asked for one, it will be the first time in my life someone other than a customs official has asked me for “my papers.”  It’s an unusual thought for someone who has spent most of his life in the West.  Out here in the 19th the instances of stopping by police (sometimes in plainclothes) are certainly less than what my friends who live in the Marais are seeing (5-10 stops per hour on one particular street).

Our permission slip states that we are outside (and asks us to check a box for) one of these reasons:

  • essential work that cannot be done from home – your work has to be on the “essential” list.  Restaurants are not considered “essential” but the most nimble of them have rapidly iterated to offer delivery and pickup service when they previously did not (like one of my faves, The Hood).
  • shopping for “essential” items – humorously tobacco shops are considered “essential” but wine shops are not, though to be fair, you can find alcohol in every single grocery store, which is an essential business where it looks and feels like, given the crowds, holiday shopping every single day.  I’ve only been shopping in there a few times in the last 10 days but it was amusing to see that when the French panic buy, it’s the yogurt, butter, and cheese that disappear, not the toilet paper and snack chips.  Even then, the very next day the shelves are restocked 100%.
  • non-routine and urgent medical appointments (all routine appointments were ordered cancelled some time ago) or for urgent care for the elderly (“visiting” family isn’t permitted – this is more like doing shopping for someone who is an invalid, etc.)
  • reporting for a court or police appointment
  • the most flouted one – physical exercise.  Apparently it is permitted for a maximum of one hour, within 1 km of your home.  But there is no way to see if you’ve already been “checked” for the day so you could ostensibly be stopped 6 times per day and as long as you have a newly dated and timed attestation, the same officer didn’t stop you previously, or you’re constantly wearing different disguises, you could pull it off.  There’s more than 100,000 fines that have been already been issued but that’s a minuscule number (think in terms of a country of 66 million, or even in a city of 2 million) who are willing to be caught without their permission slip or for insufficient cause.  Minimum fine is 135€.  No thanks, I’ll just stay in and continue to work on projects and read.

On the governmental side of things there’s been some help, but no explanation of what happens next.  EDF (Electricite de France, our electric provider) has announced there would not be a bill this month, but not what would happen to that payment.  URSSAF, who is the governmental body that handles social payments from small businesses like mine, has said there would not be a payment this month, but not whether we would owe it later.  Even the Ministry of Finance has told us we can instruct our banks to refuse the monthly debit, or go into the online system and stop it for this month.  There’s money promised for small businesses but it’s not entirely clear yet how we would apply and even what would be forthcoming, as there’s no “date of return to normal” that anyone in government would even consider saying to the press.

I’ve been checking in with local friends periodically by text message.  This is new for many of us.  Though many of us were here during the bombings and restaurant shootings in November 2015, we either went out the very next night, or, as I did, hosted a gathering where some of us could share our thoughts over some wine.  My regular slew of book clubs and even my film clubs have continued on in virtual format, and after some basic explanations to some who’ve never used Zoom or been in any kind of online meeting with more than two people, we have enjoyed a bit of normalcy (discussing thoughtful books or films) in what is otherwise best characterized as strange times.

I honestly did not think the French (or the Italians) could stay indoors this long.  They are quintessentially cafe and restaurant people.  It’s only when the streets are dead silent (and it’s not August) that you realize just what an integral part everyday contact with humans plays in a city, and in a city like Paris above all.  Even some of my introverted friends who originally ironically rejoiced at their new “dreamy normal” have started to find a new desire to connect.

It was just announced this week that this lockdown will continue until Easter Week, more than two weeks from now, at a minimum.  For now, it seems like, just as during the strike, many Parisians are taking this stoically.  I’ve even learned it’s actually possible for French people to stand in a queue for something other than a baguette!  But, in all seriousness, it’s generally quiet here and while there are plenty of people like me who consider this the most draconian out of multiple options we could have pursued, there aren’t really too many voices of protest in the sometimes land of revolution.  Many of us are settling down with a good long read.

My fondest hope for many who are taking what is perhaps the most unexpected of “vacations” is the examination of whether their “normal” is something they ever want to return to.  If one good thing can come from this time it might be the chance to reflect and count our blessings.  Even in “lockdown” many of us have access to food and shelter, and there are many others in the world who can count on neither in the most “normal” of circumstances.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash