The roads were busy with French, Dutch, Belgian and German cars. I ate in a restaurant overlooking the sea – my first visit to a restaurant in five months. Everyone said that there were fewer tourists around than in a normal year. The beaches and streets seemed pretty crowded to me.
If you ignored the face masks – worn by maybe half of the people on the streets – it could have been a normal July.
Did I just became part of the problem? The times are not yet normal. But we are all tempted to start to do normal things, such as travelling, visiting friends and eating in restaurants.
For several weeks France seemed to have got away successfully with the almost complete end of lockdown on June 2nd. There was no sign of the feared a second wave of the coronovirus epidemic.
In the last three weeks, that has changed – not dramatically but enough to worry the French government.
Masks are now compulsory in all indoor public spaces, but some local authorities are also making them mandatory in the street. Photo: AFP
After hovering around 500 for many days, and then climbing slowly, the number of daily confirmed Covid-19 cases leaped to around 1,000 on three days in succession last week. Five départements in metropolitan France have been placed on the “vulnerable” list, including Mayenne the department 60 kilometres south of where I live.
So far the resurgence of the virus is moderate. Even in Mayenne, the worst affected department, cases are running at “only” 110.7 for every 100,000 people. This is ten times higher than the “alert” level but many times lower than the peak of the epidemic in Alsace and greater Paris in March and early April.
In Finistère in western Brittany, it is 12.4 cases per 100,000 people; in the Vosges in eastern France it is 22 per 100,000; in the Nord department around Lille it is 14.3, in the Haut-Rhin (lower Alsace) it is 16.
What is striking – and worrying – is that some of those départements in the south, west and south west which were largely spared in March and April are starting to see an increase in cases.
So far there has been no leap in the number of deaths, which have been averaging less than 20 a day; or in the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care, now just over 400, compared to 7,200 in early April. This, sadly, may change soon.
The rise in cases in mid-July was almost entirely concentrated amongst the young and the middle-aged, who suffered mild or no symptoms. The health minister Olivier Véran warned on Sunday that the virus is spreading again amongst the old, both inside and outside care homes – possibly through contact with younger relatives.
From what little we know of Covid-19, that seems certain to result in a new surge in deaths in the next couple of weeks.
Who is to blame? That’s a difficult question to answer.
One of the friends that I was visiting in Brittany is a retired emergency room doctor. He says he has never known a disease so inexplicably selective in its choice of victims and the unpredictability of its effects.
Attitudes to French president Emmanuel Macron also affect how seriously people take the virus threat. Photo: AFP
He was also eloquent on divergent public attitudes to the virus in France.
“Here in rural Morbihan, it depends entirely what you think of (Emmanuel) Macron. The Catholic conservative families loathe him so they refuse to take warnings about the virus seriously. Weddings and funerals go ahead with minimal social distancing. The baba-cool (hippy) incomers also loathe him and they say the whole epidemic is a hoax.
“The shop-keepers and restaurant owners are desperate for the tourists to come back. They hate the mask rules which they say are ruining their businesses.
“As for the rest of us, we look at the tourists now pouring in again and the crowds on the streets, both in and out of masks, and we wonder how long before we see the kind of surge in cases they have in Finistère and Mayenne.”
In Quiberon, not far from where my friends live, the mayor used his emergency powers last week to close all beaches, parks and gardens at night.
A cluster of 54 cases was reported in an area scarcely touched by Covid-19 until now. Most of them were young people who attended private parties, in their homes or outdoors.
Throughout France, there has been an explosion of outdoor “free parties” or “raves”, including in the Bois de Vincennes in eastern Paris, to make up for the continuing ban on clubs and the social restrictions in bars.
All of this is utterly predictable and normal. With the coming of summer, people just wanna have fun. Who can blame them?
The French government, however, faces a terrible dilemma. It has sworn not to re-impose a lockdown (but local restrictions and a new closure of bars and restaurants are possible). Any acute second wave – as already seen in parts of Spain and in Florida and California – will have a calamitous effect on France’s slow economic recovery.
One thing about the coronavirus epidemic is utterly predictable.
Many French people – whether they obeyed the rules or whether they disobeyed the rules; whether they feared the virus or dismissed it as a hoax – will know who to blame for a second wave of infections. It will all be Emmanuel Macron and the government’s fault.