PARIS – Three French bans and counting in the past 13 months has been many things including a rare opportunity for the vast national bureaucracy of some 5.6 million civil servants to show their aptitude for the complication of life.
An apotheosis of the absurd has been achieved with the announcement of the third lockdown on Paris last month to control the spread of the coronavirus.
A dense, two-page version of the infamous “Certificate,” a government form that must be filled out every time you leave the house, was so tangled that it got the Home Secretary’s spokeswoman into verbal knots to explain. The document had metastasized into an increasingly unsightly monster with each lock.
Which of the 15 boxes to check? That you planned to run one kilometer with your dog, maximum allowed, or up to 10 kilometers with your children? Would you be allowed to drive 11 kilometers if you took the kids and pet with you? What if Fido wanted to run 10 kilometers and little Mathilde didn’t?
How can you deal with hairdressers, electronic cigarette vendors, video game stores, and chocolatiers who are considered must-have stores and are allowed to open but shoe stores, beauty salons, fashion boutiques, and department stores have to close?
Knowledge of the French functionary’s labyrinthine thought processes was clearly required. France, as a former Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau noted, “is an extremely fertile land: you plant officials and taxes grow”.
“The document is complex,” admitted Interior Ministry spokeswoman Camille Chaize. However, she suggested that the distances allowed for each activity be self-explanatory. For example, a kilometer – just over half a mile – is clearly the radius a dog can urinate, she argued.
Nevertheless, it seemed anything but self-explanatory that the document allowed 30 kilometers for purchases of “first necessity” and even more for “professional” purchases.
Before I could take advantage of this unexpected leeway – after figuring out what was considered a “first necessity” – the government destroyed the document, which collapsed under the weight of its absurdity within 24 hours after Valérie called it “multiple choice.” -Quiz “was denounced Boyer, Senator of the center-right Republican.
Instead of having to answer a series of questions, mere proof of residence is now enough to go indefinitely within 10 kilometers of home. But of course not after the 11 hour curfew which was a bit relaxed to start at 7 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.
In France there are presidential elections in a year, so a restriction (lock no.3) had to be offset by a concession to the voters (an extra hour before the curfew for an aperitif).
April 26, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. ET
The French are fed up with it, and President Emmanuel Macron has to strike a delicate balance between fighting the virus and abandoning an already disgruntled public with downright restricted mobility.
The barriers have cut the social fabric of life, the nexus of which is the table at which grumbling and laughing (including bureaucracy) start.
Despite the reform ambitions of successive presidents – Jacques Chirac spoke of the “obesity of the state” in 1986 – the number of officials has risen by over a million in the last 30 years and now makes up 22 percent of the total workforce. You are resilient.
They also offer support unimaginable in the United States. Since arriving here four months ago, I’ve had a serious bicycle accident that resulted in two hospital stays, a full brain scan, and other tests. I was charged about $ 250 for all of that. French universal health care works just like the welfare state. There are free Covid test pop-up tents all over Paris. The tightly organized lockdowns have prevented the pandemic from getting worse.
Still, you can get too much good.
I recently rented an apartment and had to furnish it. As a result, I found myself in Castorama, a kind of DIY trading center with some Gallic flourishes, which was only open because its surface was government approved for such business.
In truth, the shop was just kind of open. Red and white tape, as if stretched around a crime scene, surrounded some areas, including the one for lamps, sconces, and other sconces.
In this way, I learned more about essential and non-essential elements as part of the blocking. I was able to buy electric raclette makers for heating cheese in a dozen different models. I could buy tons of toasters, pans of all shapes and sizes, every type of home stereo – but no desk lamp.
An electronics store, smoothie maker, and vacuum cleaner were for sale in Boulanger, but no refrigerators, ovens, or other locked large appliances.
How this was related to the fight against the coronavirus – over 100,000 people in France have died from it and more than five million have been infected – was not immediately clear.
The sheer complexity of the bureaucratic dullness overwhelmed me. I had to wonder if a fraction of the many hours devoted to drafting such regulations could have been better used to expedite vaccines to more people. So far, France has not been challenged to vaccinate its population.
The country’s shoe repair shops are open even if you can’t buy new shoes. The florists are open, but no kitchen shops. The frozen food stores are open, but no souvenir shops. Bookstores are now open even though they were closed when they were first locked. All restaurants, bars and cafes are closed. Mr Macron has suggested that restrictions begin easing on May 3rd – maybe.
One sign I recently walked past in a closed beauty salon read: “Unlike ‘hairdressers’, we don’t seem to be essential to wellbeing. Injustice!”
Lingerie and underwear stores, which are considered insignificant and so closed, have launched a national protest, with Prime Minister Jean Castex sending lace trousers from all over France every day.
I know that there has to be a logic of what is open and what is closed. France still has a commissioner general for planning as if the Soviet Union never disappeared. The country proceeds methodically, based on the analysis and forecasts of highly qualified civil servants formed in elite schools.
Yet one overwhelming question grips my entire being: Why these seemingly arbitrary rules?
I asked a Castorama salesman to explain why, for example, the lamps I wanted were banned while I could buy a crepes maker.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “But of course you can always use a candle.”