One year ago this Wednesday, millions of lives were turned upside down as French President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide lockdown that would go into effect at midday on March 17, 2020, and would end nearly two months later on May 10. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the images from this unprecedented public health measure that tested the nation’s resilience.
At midday on March 17, 2020, France went into suspended animation with the start of a strict nationwide lockdown (known locally as the confinement) that lasted for some 55 days. Here are 10 images from an unprecedented period when French residents experienced life as never before.
President Macron's 'declaration of war’
France is once again at "war", President Emmanuel Macron announced in a solemn televised address to the nation on March 16, 2020. With Covid-19 cases rising and death tolls mounting, France would be going into a nationwide lockdown. Macron did not mince his words: France is “not fighting against any army, nor against any other nation", he said. "But the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, advancing.” The president then announced what many people guessed was coming: the introduction of a lockdown. The measure would go into effect at noon the next day, the president told an apprehensive populace that was about to begin an unprecedented chapter in their lives.
Notes for leaving home
The day after Macron’s announcement, France’s then interior minister Christophe Castaner detailed the new lockdown measures: Anyone leaving home must have an official form noting the reason for venturing outdoors; offenders without a form would be fined €135 and around 100,000 police officers were being deployed nationwide to ensure compliance. The government’s lockdown motto was a terse,"Stay home."
Before the measures came into effect at noon on March 17, many city dwellers with country homes hit the road or rushed to train stations to wait out the lockdown in relatively privileged pastoral conditions – many travelling across the country despite the government’s recommendations to stay put to avoid spreading the virus. According to a study conducted by the Orange mobile phone operator based on subscriber data, 17 percent of metropolitan Paris residents left the area between March 13 and March 20.
Overnight, France’s bustling cities turned into ghost towns. Lively village and town squares also looked deserted and abandoned. Photographs of Paris – emptied of its shoppers, commuters, café patrons and motorists – revealed a city that looked like a still from an apocalypse film. From the banks of the River Seine to Place de la République and the Champs-Élysées, both professional and amateur photographers immortalised the French capital in a state of surreal emptiness.
Working from home (télétravail)
The new lockdown measures transformed the way a country that is often resistant to change does business. The public health emergency saw many French people who had little or no prior experience of working from home adapting to virtual meetings, mute buttons and cameras. The first lockdown in the spring of 2020 plunged a quarter of France’s working population into a work environment many had not imagined at the start of the year. For some, it proved to be a godsend; for others, the enforced isolation was a stress aggravator.
French comedian Vanessa Desmaret broadcasting from her kitchen in Lyon on April 11, 2020.
French comedian Vanessa Desmaret broadcasting from her kitchen in Lyon on April 11, 2020. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP
For parents working from home, the closure of schools and universities added further complications to already constrained lives. The rigours of homeschooling compelled parents and teachers to improvise – with varying degrees of success – to virtual lessons. As elsewhere, the lockdown also accentuated existing social inequalities. Some students dropped out, but overall, studies show teachers and pupils adjusted well to the new form of instruction. A study by the French education ministry’s statistical service published on July 22, 2020, showed 77 percent of primary school teachers and 68 percent of secondary school teachers believed their students learned "satisfactorily" during the lockdown period.
A family in Mulhouse in eastern France copes with homeschooling.
A family in Mulhouse in eastern France copes with homeschooling. © Sebastien Bozon, AFP
A run on pasta and toilet paper
Faced with an exceptional situation, some people panicked, stocking up on non-perishable foodstuffs. Pasta, rice, canned food, toilet paper and soap flew off supermarket shelves. Lines outside wine stores and “tabacs” selling cigarettes became a gauge of how French lives were being spent behind closed doors.
A man surveys empty shelves in the toilet paper section in a supermarket in eastern France on March 16, 2020.
A man surveys empty shelves in the toilet paper section in a supermarket in eastern France on March 16, 2020. © Sebastien Bozon, AFP
The race for PCR tests
Tests were strongly encouraged for anyone who suspected they had come into contact with someone suffering from Covid-19. Faced with high demand, the supply of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test facilities and kits proved insufficient. Once again, lines snaked around clinics, forcing health authorities to set up temporary testing centres near train stations. Buses crisscrossing the countryside were also converted into mobile testing centres.
A man has a PCR test fat a medical laboratory in Paris.
A man has a PCR test fat a medical laboratory in Paris. © Christophe Archambault, AFP
Applause at 8pm
Healthcare workers, on the front line in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, were cheered every evening by people drawn to their windows at 8pm sharp. As in other countries, the 8pm applause in France created new bonds from windows, balconies and gardens as neighbours honoured the pandemic era’s new heroes.
Residents of a building show their support to healthcare employees in Saint-Mande, a Paris' suburb, on May 4, 2020.
Residents of a building show their support to healthcare employees in Saint-Mande, a Paris' suburb, on May 4, 2020. © Martin Bureau, AFP
On May 10, 2020, the French regained the right to leave their homes after nearly two months of lockdown. Students went back to school and shops selling non-essentials were allowed to reopen. But many restrictions remained. The precautions, however, did not prevent a second lockdown (the reconfinement) from October 28 to December 15. A year later, despite encouraging signs with the arrival of vaccines, France is facing a rise in Covid-19 cases and the prospect of a third lockdown.
France emerges from its first coronavirus lockdown on May 11, 2020.
France emerges from its first coronavirus lockdown on May 11, 2020. © Christophe Archambault, AFP
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