You don't lightly take issue with John Donne, John F Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Wendell Wilkie. But the plain truth – contrary to the famous creed attributed at different times to all of the above – is that freedom isn't indivisible at all. Freedom comes in an infinite range of divisions and degrees. Just ask the thousands of prisoners banged up for lifetimes in the Land of the Free.
By the same token, France's release from coronavirus lockdown on 11 May felt a lot like freedom for the first few days, and has felt rather less like it ever since. I'm not suggesting that a measured phasing of déconfinement was anything other than sensible: merely that the uplift to morale was of limited altitude and duration. No sooner had we celebrated the blessings of normal life that had been returned to us than the restrictions remaining upon them began to weigh heavier.
I report this without the least expectation of sympathy from a Scottish readership. As I write, you are still in pretty much full lockdown, whereas we have had a couple of weeks of life offering some more interesting options than the binge-watched box set (The Sopranos
, since you ask. You gotta problem w'dat?). Just remember, the clamps went on here first. But, now that Nicola Sturgeon has sketched out her roadmap for a gradual easing of controls, you should also be aware that the end to strict lockdown is not an end to frustration or confinement. They simply take on different forms. Degrees, you see, of freedom.
Here in Green Zone France, we can now walk without limit from our homes, take as long as we like about it, and drive up to 100km, without having to fill in a form to explain what the hell we're doing and why. But walk out to what? For the flâneur, which is everyone who lives in a French town or city, the strolling of the boulevards is really an elegant prelude to the sitting on a café terrace with a glass of chilled Languedoc rosé, or the taking of a long, leisurely lunch. Neither culmination is yet available, since cafés and restaurants remain closed: only the strolling. True, a growing number eateries are reinventing themselves as takeaways, selling drinks or food pour emporter from a table at the door. But the purpose of a French café is not emporter. It is s'asseoir and regarder, and possibly lire un journal. You can't do any of that on the hoof with a paper cup.
We can now shop for things other than food, but many shops are holding off to see whether trade will pay better than government compensation, given the limits on customer numbers allowed on the premises. Many will never re-open. We can go and get our hair cut, but had better be prepared for a long wait. We can go on some beaches, but not sit or sunbathe.
Wherever the line is drawn, anomalies abound. I can look at smutty magazines in a sex shop, but not at the impressionist masterpieces in the Museé Fabre. I can buy a taco, but not a magret de canard aux figues. I can listen to a busker slaughtering Wonderwall
, but not a fine cathedral choir singing the Fauré Requiem
. Very young children are back at school, older ones not: a less than helpful prop to family childcare arrangements.
I must wear – rightly – a face mask on a tram or in a shop, yet Montpellier's narrow streets are crammed with panting joggers and cyclists, spraying saliva droplets hither and yon, unhampered by facial barrier. Gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed in public places, which is fine for youngsters with a boombox and a bottle of plonk. But Montpellier's rich programme of summer cultural festivals is entirely off the calendar. I can get a tattoo but not a demi pression.
Yet, across the past fortnight, restraints have also begun to be quietly relaxed under a process we might call self-propelled gradualism. This, let's be clear, is quite different from a Cummingsesque up-yours. Contrary to repute, the French are not a naturally defiant people. As they showed during the long weeks of lockdown, they will generally comply with rules provided they can see the sense of them. It is only where rules seem daft, or outcomes anomalous, that they are prone to become a little, shall we say, adaptive.
Markets, that jewel of French life, are a case in point. For reasons nowhere clear, the initial post-lockdown rubric permitted food markets, but not the general goods stalls that help food markets stay viable. This might have made sense when lockdown was in force, and food shops were almost the only type allowed to open. Now, shops are permitted to sell clothes, books, household goods and the rest: but not market traders.
Besides which, markets, like parks and beaches, need the mayor's consent to reopen. It is worth recalling that France has nearly 37,000 mayors, who never agree on anything. So, week one saw some markets reopened, others not. We found the foodie bits of the weekly markets at Pezenas and Marseillan operating busily, albeit marshalled and hand-gelled. A very similar one at Lunel was not there, nor were the popular ones in Montpellier itself, at Antigone and Arçeaux. Yet the city's permanent indoor markets – les halles – which stayed open throughout the lockdown are thriving. So too the flower market on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which wasn't open during lockdown; but not so the book or antique markets.
However, the second week of déconfinement saw things inching closer to normality. At Frontignan, we found the food market doing good trade… as was the general market, shifted to a separate enclosure a block away. The next day, a favourite of ours at Palavas turned out to have both food and non-food co-located – but spaced out in a big carpark, rather than strung along the usual narrow pathway. Roadside fruit stalls have begun quietly to reopen, though I'm not sure they were ever sanctioned to do so. Lawful is coming to mean that which the cops don't bother to prevent.
Another notable trend is more personal. Even for those of us raised to the Calvinist work ethic, lockdown was a fine excuse to spend afternoons loafing with a good book and a glass of something cold. Being allowed now to be more active starts to feel like a moral imperative, with all the implied guilt. It reminds me of my mother chasing me from the house at the first glimpse of sunshine. The sun here shines all day. I should be out doing stuff in it. Not that there's yet an awful lot to do.
Next Tuesday, France is due to move into phase two of déconfinement. As I write, few details are known of what it will involve, though the number of restaurateurs visibly sprucing up their premises suggests their hope of parole is high. With the summer furnace upon us, pressure to relax rules for bars and beaches is also powerful. For a day or two, it should feel positively liberating. But then…