That Wednesday was my wife’s day to walk the dog, so I hadn’t been or even looked outside yet when, at 8 PM, the TV show we were watching was interrupted by the sound of boisterous, widespread applause. We went to see what was going on.
We live in a cluster of public housing buildings, each shaped like a castoff from a failed serif font, and arranged in a way that creates alleys, alcoves, and half-enclosed courtyards in the negative space between each building. Our neighbors’ windows face our own from all angles. In addition to the general and steady clapping was the sound of a tuba lowing from across the street, sharp wolf-whistles from every direction, the banging of pots and pans, and cries of “Merci les hôpitaux!” and “Vive la France!” A young mother in a head wrap hoisted her toddler up to the windowsill to bang soda bottles together. From the window below ours, we heard our downstairs neighbors, Marie and her 10-year-old daughter Lya, whose evening singing and morning screaming through the floor have been integral to the daily emotional fabric of our lives. It was disorienting to hear them so clearly in the open air.
For a moment I thought there was a team of paramedics on the block who had just performed some heroic intervention. The resolute and slightly plaintive tenor of the applause reminded me of the cheers that, a little under a year ago, went up along the banks of the Seine as the firefighters who’d spent hours bringing the Notre Dame fire under control withdrew over the Pont Saint-Louis. In our neighborhood, cheering at windows typically pertains to soccer—when both Algeria and Senegal advanced to the final of the Africa cup last summer, people leaned out their windows to wave flags and launched fireworks from their balconies—and inevitably spills into the streets. There’s an uncanny feeling that comes over me, the sensation of fullness, during these unexpected confrontations with a larger order of emotion. But in this case the mild euphoric feeling didn’t last. Within a few minutes it had fermented into despair.
This was just the second day of our official confinement, which began that Tuesday at noon, but many of us had been home since the previous Thursday, when President Macron first addressed the nation, in soaring rhetoric, about how profoundly the coronavirus pandemic would disrupt French life. For foreigners living in France, it’s often tempting to characterize the relationship of the French government to the French people as that of a stern parent to a recalcitrant and slightly spoiled teen. It’s a temptation that was impossible to resist that week. Watching Macron’s speech, and having seen Trump’s catastrophic address a few days earlier, I felt certain the nation would rally behind him. He praised health care workers for the sacrifices they’d made and would make, and outlined steps he was taking to support and protect them; he closed schools from daycare up through university; he previewed financial relief to individuals as well as businesses of all sizes; he extended the trève hivernale, the wintertime ban on evictions, by two months; and he acknowledged, in a stark contradiction of the policies and principles he’s pursued otherwise since he took office, that market forces weren’t equal to the challenges that lay ahead. To avoid the worst of all possible outcomes, he said, would require an unprecedented mass mobilization, and invoking a tradition of social solidarity in times of earthshaking crisis, he said he was counting on the people of France to observe a few simple rules, the most important of which was: stay home.
At that time, there’d been fewer than three thousand confirmed infections in France, and around sixty deaths. My wife read reactions from Facebook: “He’s counting on us?” someone had written. “Is that a joke?” Admittedly, it undermined his cause that he also announced that municipal elections scheduled for Sunday would go forward. But I was sure the urgent, slightly histrionic tone of this speech would bring the French to their senses. But on Friday evening, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, were all still full, and Saturday morning, for the seventieth straight week, the gilets jaunes marched in the streets. A segment on France 2’s nightly news showed a restauratrice in Boulogne-Billancourt, a wealthy Parisian suburb, exchanging triple cheek kisses with her brunch clientele. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “it doesn’t exist, there’s no virus, there’s nothing at all, it’s like the flu.”
By then, forty-eight hours after the speech, the caseload had increased to forty-five hundred, and ninety-one people had died. In a press conference that afternoon, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, noting a lack of discipline in certain quarters, reiterated in plain French the main points of Macron’s address, and ordered the closure of all non-essential commerce—effective at midnight that same day, only grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, newsstands, and tobacco shops would remain open. In our quiet corner of the twentieth at around 11:30 that night, as I walked the dog, heavy bass thumped from house parties on every block, people in a rush to make last call spilled out of illegally parked cars, groups of slightly crusty guys clustered around twelve-packs of Heineken and Desperados on the sidewalk, and every bar I passed was packed.
When it was announced that Monday evening that Macron would once again address the nation from the Salon doré, rumors began to fly around that he would instate a 6 PM curfew, and that he would seal off the entire region of Île-de-France, which comprises Paris and its suburbs. In the streets, Parisians, wearing masks they’d somehow got their hands on, wheeled grocery caddies in the direction of the grocery stores, where among the half-empty shelves, a brittle calm prevailed. Speaking in the same emphatically high-flown style at the appointed time, Macron announced measures that didn’t go quite as far as people guessed; a lot of us were disappointed. It wasn’t until Edouard Philippe, once again playing bad cop to Macron’s good, appeared on France 2 the next day to explain the new decree in more detail, that it became clear how strictly the measures would be enforced. A number of questions from viewers concerned the famous Attestation de déplacement dérogatoire. That morning, every cell phone in France had received a text message from the government, with a link to the Ministry of the Interior’s website, where one could download a form they would need to complete each time they wanted to leave the house. This affidavit, the prime minister explained, would be valid only if completed in full, only on the date it was signed, and only for the purpose it specified: trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, or tobacconist, trips to the doctor or hospital, trips to assist family members in need, or brief excursions in the immediate vicinity of one’s home address, for the purpose of getting some exercise or walking one’s pets. Far more than calls to arms or invocations of the greater good, the French respond to paperwork.
So many gestures large and small determine the emotions and behavior of millions of people. A lot of these gestures come from the top down—Macron’s attempts to inspire, the appearances of public health professionals on TV each night, the Attestations de déplacement—but many originate among the masses and operate horizontally to help us keep us steady on our feet. In some corners of French social media, for example, during the week leading up to the lockdown, people posted photos of fully stocked grocery shelves, as a corrective to all the photos of empty shelves that create a feedback loop of panic. The applause, whose coordination likewise originated on social media, belongs to this latter category as well. In a crisis of any kind, acknowledging our heroes gives us a way to focus our collective anxiety, fear, and grief, and in that way, it serves our own needs at least as much as it serves theirs.
A lifetime ago, I spent a lot of time at our window, and if one or two of my neighbors were at their windows or on their balconies as well, smoking or shaking out rugs, we tacitly agreed to ignore each other. It was in the streets that we recognized one another, that we said hello, stopped to pet each other’s dogs and ask each other’s kids about their day at school, to exchange news about the ongoing spate of burglaries, to admire each other’s little tree-well gardens beneath the ashes and sycamores, to compare notes on the titles we borrowed from the little bookswap library our super set up on the ground floor. We helped each other move furniture. When there were cops around, we warned the teenagers always smoking pot in the park. We kept cookies and juice in the house for when our neighbors’ children forgot their keys. We served each other tea and brought each other meals when we heard each other crying through the walls. One thing our confinement made clear within hours is how meagerly social media serves our need to give expression our public selves, to satisfy our need to belong to something outside our homes.
Macron continues to address the nation regularly, and Philippe makes regular appearances on the nightly news, less as a bad cop now than to absorb the lashes from the press and public alike—for all its flaws, this government knows who it answers to. But the health care system is under enormous strain. One hospital in Saint-Denis was forced to refuse ventilators to patients over sixty (and certain patients over fifty) with comorbidities such as diabetes and lung disease. On a recent broadcast of Quotidien, a nurse at a hospital in Montreuil, just across the périphérique from us, described the toll the virus was taking on the staff there: “You don’t become a nurse,” she said, “so you can choose which people you should save.” That first night in mid-March, people came to windows all over Paris (with the reported exception of the sixteenth, a bastion of wealth and conservatism, with the dearth of civic-mindedness that implies), and by the next night, to windows all over France, and elsewhere in Europe too. The children hollered and blew police whistles, they clapped and bounced and banged pots with wooden spoons. This continued, and each night, I experienced the same cycle of uplift and letdown; it was deeply gratifying to hear our neighbors’ voices, to add our voices to theirs, but then it would trail off. The kids, Lya among them, would cheerfully and bravely cry out, “See you tomorrow! Bon courage!” and they’d furiously wave their hands, and we’d wave back, and each time, it would absolutely break my heart.
As of this writing, France’s death toll is more than thirteen thousand. The trees were bare when this began; now the lindens are in full leaf, and the ashes will follow shortly. At some point the clocks changed, and at first it made us bashful to face each other each evening in full daylight. But without fail at 8 we appear at our windows, sometimes grimly, sometimes exuberantly, to fulfill what we all seem to agree is a duty to each other. Around midnight, I fill out an affidavit from the stack of blanks we printed and, with that night’s applause echoing in my mind, take the dog out for a last walk in the silent streets. The first night, someone had posted a handwritten signup sheet, where people could make their phone numbers available to elderly neighbors who might need any sort of help. The next night, management had replaced it with a printed signup sheet of their own. Now it’s been replaced by a version published by the state, which was filled out completely within days. Now, almost a month into our confinement, the parked cars are all pocked with pigeon shit, and the grass and weeds have grown knee high in the tree wells. At all times of day the line for cigarettes is a block long. The streets are littered with debris, spilled out of uncollected trash cans on every corner and scattered by the wind. You can follow a trail of sloughed-off latex gloves along the gutters to the grocery store. Meanwhile, Burr and Loeffler, meanwhile Mitch McConnell, meanwhile Devin Nunes and Matt Gaetz. Meanwhile Trump and the obscene percentage of Americans who approve of the job he’s done handling the pandemic so far. Out on the main boulevard, just east of Place de la Nation, is the public square where the guillotine once stood, which is now strewn with garbage and picked over by rats; whenever I walk through it, it occurs to me to wonder: what are we going to do with all these people when this disaster is behind us and their reign ends?
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities ends with a reflection on the infernal. “The inferno of the living,” he writes, “is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.” There are two ways, he says, to escape: “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
It’s upon the former principle, point being, that civilization itself is based. I’d always thought of the latter as a principle around which to organize a family, or a close circle of friends, a version of Candide’s injunction to cultivate one’s own garden, in spite of the plunder and violence of kings. When we moved into our apartment, we found a non-infernal community of thousands, and through all the turmoil that’s ensued both in our personal lives and in the wider political world, the existence of this community has been a source of comfort and hope. The other day, a team of medics appeared on our block, and we watched in silence at our windows while they wheeled a neighbor of ours through the courtyard and drove her away. That night, I was out for a run when the applause began, and it followed me for blocks and blocks. From the street, it sounded less like a recognition of the heroes of our present, and more like the benediction of an order that belongs to the past, which, in the world to come, we’re going to have to rebuild from scratch.