A Lockdown, Paris-Style: ‘We Can’t Live Without Bread’

PARIS — Parisians took the French government’s partial lockdown measures in stride on Sunday, half shrugging off the coronavirus threat and only limiting their normal weekend’s activities: shopping at open-air markets, strolling in parks and lining up outside bakeries and butchers.

It could have been a typical, sun-filled, pre-spring Sunday, with thousands taking advantage of the good weather in Paris. Yet perceptible elements were missing. There was no low buzz from those centers of national conviviality, the cafes and restaurants, now closed by official order. And the streets were largely empty of traffic.

The great corridors of tourist shopping, normally bustling on a Sunday, were dead. On the Champs-Élysées, the cafes’ wicker chairs were piled high inside and the wide avenue was semi-deserted. At the closed luxury stores along the Rue Saint-Honoré, usually humming with Chinese shoppers in search of expensive handbags, hardly a buyer was in sight. And along the now-quiet Rue de Rivoli’s long commercial strip, the giant BHV department store, ordinarily a frenetic Sunday hub, was dark.

Sunday happened to be Election Day, the first round of France’s municipal vote, regarded as an important referendum on the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Where voters turned out to elect the country’s 34,000-odd mayors, poll workers wore rubber gloves and masks, and registration tables carried hand sanitizer.

By late afternoon, turnout was at 38 percent. Some Parisians clung stubbornly to the voting ritual, heeding Mr. Macron’s exhortations to go vote. “It’s our duty,” said Marie-Madeleine Drillin, 72, leaving a polling station in eastern Paris. “Our ancestors fought for this right. So, we’ve got to respect it.”

Still, faced with a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, the government delivered a warning to the French on Saturday night to show more “discipline.” By Sunday, 127 people had died in the country of the disease, Covid-19, and there were 5,423 confirmed infections.

Henceforth, the government said, contacts were to be limited. “Nonessential” shopping trips must be curtailed. “We have seen too many people in cafes and restaurants,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said sternly. By Sunday, there were none.

The government has adopted a no-nonsense tone in addressing French citizens, neither hiding nor hyping the epidemic’s realities.

“One principle guides us,” Mr. Macron said in a televised address to the country on Thursday night. “It’s confidence in science,” he said. “It’s to listen to those who really know,” he continued, a subtle rebuke to allies across the Atlantic. And, in fact, the country’s top health officials have taken the lead in communicating with the public.

“We are only at the beginning of this epidemic,” the president continued. As he announced the closing of all schools starting on Monday, he warned, “All over Europe, it is accelerating and intensifying.”

The French state, he insisted, will protect its citizens, their health and their finances during the crisis. It was another dig at trans-Atlantic free-marketers.

“What this pandemic reveals is that free health care without restrictions of income, career or job are not costs, but precious assets, indispensable advantages when fate strikes,” Mr. Macron said in his speech. He promised “massive” state aid for those unable to work.

“The state will take on the indemnification of workers forced to stay at home,” Mr. Macron said, but he did not talk about the costs.

The mix of warning and reassurance from the president perhaps bolstered Parisian insouciance, and was clearly not dead by Sunday. The giant open-air market at the Place de la Bastille in central Paris, stretching for blocks into the eastern part of the capital, was still full of shoppers, produce vendors, fish and oyster salesmen, butchers, Middle Eastern sandwich sellers and purveyors of costly mushrooms.

“I’m not raising my prices just because of this virus!” one butcher shouted encouragingly to his customers.

France was adapting in its own version of the European lockdown. Food shopping, near-sacred, and food preparation were other matters. It was no coincidence that the government had authorized places of worship and food markets to remain open.

At Bastille, the customers thronging the narrow spaces between the stalls were hardly observing the government’s rule about keeping three feet apart to stem the spread of the outbreak. A rare few wore medical masks.

“One day or another, we’re all going to die,” said Raymond Bouclet, shrugging. He was selling early-season morel mushrooms at the Bastille market for almost $3 apiece, and he had barely lacked for customers that day, even if the photo-snapping tourists had disappeared.

Mr. Bouclet said he was not worried about the virus. “The weaker ones will get it,” he said. “The others, it will just pass right by them.”

Besides, Mr. Philippe, the prime minister, had said nothing about open-air markets. At the one in Bastille, some wondered about the government’s apparent oversight, even as they took advantage of it.

“It’s really strange: They’ve authorized the markets and the churches,” said Camille Gabarra, a graphic designer, examining some handsome lettuces. “Is that right? It seems incoherent.”

Otherwise, he was in favor of the restrictions. “These are measures taken by the state, and we’ve got to respect them,” Mr. Gabarra said.

He had canceled a family lunch that day and all his appointments for the next week. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said of the lockdown.

Others said keeping the markets running made sense since they were safer than enclosed stores.

“Sure, I’m a bit worried,” said Laure Chouraqui, an architect, shopping for succulent-looking produce. “But I feel safer in the open air. I’m taking care not to go into enclosed public spaces.”

At a bakery near Place de la Nation in eastern Paris, several dozen customers were jammed in, oblivious to any spacing rules.

“We can’t live without bread here,” said Bruno Lanterne, 55, a hairdresser, as he left, two baguettes tucked under his arm. “You can’t take that away from the French.”

The elections on Sunday seemed an afterthought. France’s mind was elsewhere. The low turnout appeared to bear out the warning from some of Mr. Macron’s political opponents that allowing the vote to continue had been a dreadful mistake.

At a polling site in Paris’s middle- and low-income 20th Arrondissement, voters lined up in a schoolyard, keeping the three-foot gap between each. Hand sanitizers were placed at the room’s entrance, while posters reminded people of the basic gestures to avoid contamination.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen anything like this. It’s incredible,” said Frédérique Bach, a 33-year-old social worker who wore a mask. She added: “The crisis has been downplayed. But people are starting to get really worried now.”

With businesses shutting down, others were more preoccupied with payless days ahead. The finance and economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, has promised “tens of billions of euros” to help businesses and others in order to keep the French economy going.

“We’ll do whatever it takes, and more than what it takes, to support our economy and our businesses,” Mr. Le Maire said Friday on French television.

In theory, the state could pay up to 84 percent of the salaries of employees unable to work because of the virus. But the fate of more fragile workers — part-timers and those in precarious jobs in the restaurant industry, for instance — is unclear.

Alexandre Piel, 20, said he needed the money from his part-time job as a waiter at the Rhino Rouge, in eastern Paris, to help pay for school and daily expenses.

“We hope this won’t last, but there’s no way of knowing,” said Mr. Piel, who was in mid-service on Saturday night when the news that his restaurant would close flashed on patrons’ cellphones.

The restaurant opened two years ago and was just starting to become profitable after considerable investment, which included a large, costly meat smoker imported from Texas.

“We’re going to take a hit, that’s clear,” Mr. Piel said.

Reporting was contributed by Constant Méheut, Aurelien Breeden, Liz Alderman and Daphné Anglès.

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