It is 7.45pm on Saturday on the Comédie, the vast central square of my adopted city of Montpellier. The Covid curfew begins its first night in 75 minutes. Some of the restaurants are open but many not. Those still serving are the kind where young parents put a steak hâché in the kids before bed-time. None looks busy.
Elsewhere in the old town, the picture is discouraging for a city that cherishes its nightlife. I scout four of our favourite restaurants, to find three closed and one closing. The Rue Diderot, known to us as the Street of a Thousand Restaurants and usually a jostling canyon of conviviality, is dark and quiet: just odd pools of light where a few low-cost bistros are doing desultory business. And this on a balmy Saturday evening. Who is going to haul in the chef and fire up the stoves for a couple of hours on a wet Tuesday? Can serving lunch be worthwhile without evening turnover?
The word curfew, you possibly know, comes from the French compound noun couvre-feu
, literally meaning cover the fire
or, more colloquially, lights out
. Modern French retains the archaic formulation, but the practical meaning is the same as everywhere: an official order to keep off the streets for a specified period of the day or night.
For Montpellier and its surrounding metropole
, the new regime began at midnight on Friday. Curfew applies from 9pm to 6am, and will remain in force for at least four weeks – and probably six. This means that cafés, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and clubs must close at a time that enables their customers to get home by 9pm. Anybody still on the streets after that had better have a demonstrably valid reason: shiftwork, for example.
The curfew was announced by Emmanuel Macron in a 50-minute TV interview last Wednesday evening. It covers nine cities where the resurgent Covid infection rate is high, including greater Paris: nearly 20 million people in all. The curfews will be enforced with fines (€135 for a first offence, €1,500 for subsequent violations) and by the local police – though not, the President insisted, heavy-handedly. Consultations with mayors and city officials are promised to ensure enforcement respects local conditions, such as travel distances. The same civic panjandrums are being urged to bring forward ideas for better measures to contain the virus as it affects their communities.
Some of this is political window dressing. It is several months since the President last addressed the nation. The strategy since summer has been for national government to enable and encourage local initiatives but, wherever possible, to keep its nose out of pandemic policy. The worst way always to procure compliance is for Paris to tell the rest of the country what to do… even if Paris is doing it too. France has many Andy Burnhams. In Montpellier, it was the départmental Prefect who two weeks ago ordered bars that don't serve food to close, in the apparent belief that alcohol creates laxity about rules like mask-wearing (also Prefect-ordained). A tapas with your drink presumably restores civic responsibility.
Macron's broadcast signals a measured return to national policy-making. 'We have not lost control of the pandemic,' he insisted. 'We have learned lessons from the first wave.' The second wave has, so far, cost around 2,000 French lives, against 30,000 in the first wave. Nevertheless, two aspects of the resurgence are causing particular concern.
First, a ramped-up free testing programme – already running at 1.3 million tests per week, and soon to be expanded with a new test that delivers results in 15 minutes and can be self-administered – has generated an upsurge in caseload that hospitals in general, intensive care units in particular, are struggling to meet. The pressures on ICUs, Macron said grimly, are not sustainable.
Second, this time around, the virus has forged through the country at alarming speed. The curfewed cities range from Lille and Rouen in the north, to Grenoble in the east, Toulouse in the west and Marseille in the south. The first wave was confined mostly to greater Paris and the east, allowing hospitals the relief of transferring patients to less pressurised areas. This time it is ubiquitous, thanks to the French fondness for holidays in France and the return of students to scattered universities.
Yet, in many ways, what was most conspicuous about the President's statement was what he didn't
do. There is no lockdown, national or local. There is no curtailment of public transport, nor closure of holiday centres. There is no restriction on travelling from one region to another. Schools, colleges and universities remain open. So do markets. People are advised to work from home for a day or two a week where possible, but only advised: similarly, advice rather than sanctions are the order of the day for visiting granny, having a picnic, or planning a dinner party. Macron expressly does not want the kids to party, but he acknowledged: 'It's tough to be 20 in 2020'.
An emollient President is looking to local officials to take responsibility for any necessarily more irksome regulations, in line with local circumstance. He wants socialising curbed but is open to ideas about how. Mayors are to be 'actors of prevention', because they know the needs of their communities. Curfewed cities would receive 'exceptional' extra help to protect jobs and wages, Macron promised, on top of a furlough scheme that is already, at 90% of income, more generous than in many countries.
Interestingly, the next day, new Prime Minister, Jean Castex, brusquely ordered a nationwide ban on private functions, including weddings, in public places. It may not sound unduly severe, but the contrast in tone between head of government and head of state was striking. Is Castex cultivating a tough-guy image? Or had they worked up a good cop-bad cop routine? Time will tell.
Macron, fluently dispensing detailed statistics and argument without apparent recourse to notes, projected, as he has from the outset, the confident air of a man in command of his brief and doing the fewest possible unpleasant things that the evidence demands. There were repeated pledges to lay out all the facts, and then trust to the sense and public-spiritedness of his electorate. 'We are not talking about infantilising people,' he said. 'I am not going to treat people as children.'
This follows protests in Paris against compulsory mask wearing, though it is a libertarian gripe mostly confined, as elsewhere, to cranks of the far right. Macron shrugged it aside: 'We were one of the countries that most respected the lockdown rules. The French people were exemplary,' he boasted. 'We are learning all over again how to act together as a nation. We need each other. We will overcome this if we stick together.'
So will they? For central belt Scots, forbidden even auntie's front room, the curfew terms may sound pretty mild. Okay, so the French like a mid-morning aperitif. They like to go to the cinema after work, and then rubbish the movie afterwards over a Calvados. They hate sitting down to dinner before 8pm, or rising from the table before 10pm. Do these things really matter very much? If you have to ask, you're not French.