France has started to ease its lockdown. Andrew Crompton writes about living through the ‘confinement’ in France as he looks across to the UK.
May 11th marked an easing of the lockdown in France’s ‘green’ zones; self-certification documents are no longer needed to go out within 100 km of home; most shops, offices and workplaces are able to re-open (decisions about which can open are made locally); gatherings are now permitted (up to 10 people); social distancing in public remains; masks are compulsory on public transport and advised in shops, etc.; restaurants, bars, sporting facilities etc. remain closed. In the red zones of France (all of Paris and north east France) tougher restrictions remain.
The last few weeks have been interesting, not least living through the lockdown in Occitanie less than 100 km from the Mediterranean whilst keeping abreast of events in the UK. The virus has created the same issues in both places, staying safe, protecting services and the elderly, and dealing with the impact on people of ‘confinement’ – rising domestic abuse, the angst of people unable to visit relatives or attend funerals. Shortages of critical PPE have been apparent, although the problem seems to have lasted far less long than in the UK, probably due to the large EU purchase that the UK did not participate in.
Emmanuel Macron (the French President) and Edouard Phillippe (The French prime minister) have made continuous lengthy public pronouncements, consistent with bureaucratic tendencies in France. On the other hand, there is a clearer view of what needs to happen as the virus subsides. There is lively political argument in the media around decisions made and to be made. The debate in the National Assembly which passed an extension to the emergency measures is a case in point. As part of the national debate, mayors of large cities, leaders in Corsica, etc appeared on television to give their views. Elements of the package proposed by the health minister changed as a result. All of this is fully reported in the press and TV news bulletins.
Many elements of the post lockdown plan are also the same as those being debated in the UK – maintaining some elements of social distancing, testing, tracing/tracking, developing a vaccine and having a step up and down model that can deal with future resurgences of the virus. The main difference is the confidence France has in its existing institutions and processes. As a result there is a much greater local element in the execution of plans, and a much greater use of existing institutions. Masks are recommended in public. In my town masks are being provided free for citizens and delivered to the front door. Local doctors, hospitals and health teams are not being by-passed – the French citizen is advised to call their local doctor if they need a test for example.
It is hard not to compare this to the centralised model in each country of the UK, and the headlines of confusion and uncertainty that have greeted Boris Johnson’s outline of post lockdown planning. Are the ideas ‘half-baked’, and has there been insufficient discussion? Has the claimed undermining of public service impeded the ability of UK institutions to contribute? In comparison, this is France, so there is discussion and disagreement (lots of it!), but not the undermining of public service, nor an attempt to over-centralise. It all feels pretty familiar to the French. But will this make any difference in each country’s national recovery? Time will tell.