Things about France that surprised me: the French in lockdown

As we prepare for a loosening of lockdown in France on 11 May, I summarise some of the things I’ve learned about the French during this period. There are some interesting insights into the country and its people.

Who could have predicted that France – the country marked over the last two years by gilets jaunes (yellow vest) riots and mass strikes – would be following one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in Europe?

For almost two months now France has been subject to stringent rules regulating all outdoor activity. When leaving home – even if it is simply to pop to the boulangerie next door – everyone must fill out, date and sign a form stating their errand and, if necessary, submit to regular police checks. And during this period, the majority of French have done as they were told.

Even if the police have handed out a ton of fines, there have been no riots, no protests, no social street stir. Even French president Emmanuel Macron sounded slightly surprised about French docility when he extended the lockdown to 11 May.

They said we were an undisciplined people and yet here we are respecting some of the most rigorous rules ever imposed in peace time.

Here’s what we have learned:

1. French people actually love rules

Ask anyone for a stereotype about the French and it won’t be long before revolutions, strikes and riots enter the conversation. The French do not have a reputation as people who follow rules gladly and indeed frequently cast themselves as natural rebels.

And yet the French government has succeeded in imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, and pretty much everyone has accepted it.

Yes, there have been a lot of fines handed out for breaking the rules, especially in the early days, but there has been no serious attempt at mass disobedience or revolt against the rules, in general people have accepted that lockdown is necessary and meekly filled out their attestations before leaving home.

Maybe it’s because the tight lockdown conditions give everyone the perfect excuse for indulging in a very popular French hobby – complaining – which I’ll cover in another post.

2. Apéro is very important . . . but drinking isn’t

The evening pre-dinner drinks ritual is de rigeur in France, and a little thing like being confined wasn’t going to stop it. Within a few days of the lockdown being introduced #apéroSykpe  and #apéroZoom were trending on Twitter as people came up with a technological solution to enjoying drinks with friends.

And yet it seems that the chatting with friends is more important than the actual drinking. While alcohol sales in the UK and US rose by up to 20 percent as limitations were imposed on daily life, sales of alcohol have actually fallen in France. Contrary to popular belief, the French are not big drinkers. That’s right, drinking alone in PJs at 3pm is not as popular in France as elsewhere.

3. The daily baguette is a necessity 

So leaving the house is a little more complicated than usual – involving as it does filling out a signed, timed and dated attestation declaring that the purpose of your trip is essential.

You might think that would be a reason to either cut back on bread or buy a sliced loaf that lasts a couple of days. Mais non! Boulangeries have of course remained opened as an essential business and everywhere it’s pretty rare to see one without a (socially distanced) queue outside as people wait to buy their baguettes.

4. The president is quite the TV star 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, president Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating was trundling along at around 30 percent – although that’s not particularly unusual for French presidents.

Jaques Chirac, subject of many gushing tributes when he died in 2019, had an approval rating of 26 percent when he was actually in office, François Mitterand’s rating in 1991 was 29 percent while Macron’s predecessor François Hollande reached the dizzy lows of 18 percent towards the end of his presidency.

Macron has enjoyed a slight rise since the outbreak, getting up to around 40 percent, but despite the fact that more than half the public regularly tell pollsters that they don’t like him, his TV broadcasts have been attracting record audiences. He has made four live TV addresses since the outbreak began with the most recent one – where he announced that lockdown would start to be lifted on 11 May  – with an all-time record audience of 36.7 million. That’s more than half the entire population and 15 million more people than watched France winning the World Cup back in 2018. Although it’s not like any of us had the option of going out for a meal instead of watching the president.

5. Creating new words is fun

We’ve all learned quite a lot of technical and medical vocabulary during lockdown. Not to be left out, the French have been busy creating new terms too.

French for lockdown is confinement so we’ve also heard a lot of talk of le déconfinement – the great moment when we’re all released, currently set for next Monday 11 May.

They’ve also coined co-confiné – the person you are confined to home with. That would be my beloved (and long suffering) husband.

And even the, largely ironic, bon confinement – have a great lockdown.

Sadly though there doesn’t seem to be a French version of covidiot!

(all images courtesy of AFP)