‘You could see it was really serious’: France’s lockdown, six months on

A jogger runs alongside the deserted bank of the River Seine in a Paris emptied by France's Covid-19 lockdown, March 20, 2020.
A jogger runs alongside the deserted bank of the River Seine in a Paris emptied by France's Covid-19 lockdown, March 20, 2020. BERTRAND GUAY AFP/Archives

On March 17, 2020, the day after Emmanuel Macron’s famous address to the nation, lockdown measures to fight the spread of Covid-19 came into force in France. Six months on, people remember the surprise and anguish they felt during this unprecedented historical moment.


By mid-March the French government needed to act to prevent coronavirus infections spiraling out of control. Consequently, the president addressed the country on March 16, telling the French people that “from noon tomorrow, for 15 days at least, trips outside the home will be reduced greatly”. The lockdown came into force the subsequent day.

The aim was to reduce French people’s interactions as much as possible: “The message is clear – stay home!” the then Interior Minister Christophe Castaner declared after Macron’s speech. Everyone lived through this moment in his or her own way – without knowing that these “15 days at least” would in fact last for 55 days, ending on May 11.

“My husband and I went to town to do our shopping that day,” said Evelyne, 63, who lives in a village near a town of 9,000 inhabitants in the rural Eure region to the west of Paris. “We were hit by the emptiness when we arrived – no cars, no pedestrians on the pavement. We returned home to the countryside very quickly. It was the start of another life.”

The ban on people moving around except for necessary business was coming into force, but the police were showing “tolerance” at this early stage. “That day was the only time they checked our form saying why we needed to be out and about. You got the impression that the police weren’t all that conscious of what they needed to do; we didn’t want them touching our document, and they didn’t keep more than one metre away.”

‘It was a huge shock'

For others, a sense of shock predominated. “I didn’t really understand what was going on when they announced the lockdown,” said Pierre, 34, who was living in Cannes on the French Riviera at that point. “I didn’t know whether we could go out or not,” he continued. “I was at home; I was preparing myself to stay there for two weeks – but I didn’t expect it to go on for two months.”

Romain, 33, a freelance journalist living in Paris, was also caught off guard. “I was going to leave a few days after the lockdown to report in a war zone. But the countries in question had shut their borders, so I was stuck. I went from mentally preparing myself to possibly being under fire in the middle of a war to sitting there locked up in my apartment with my books and my cat.”

Most of the people FRANCE 24 spoke to felt the tide turning before March 17. One Parisian, Morgane, 30, said the “real turning point” was the announcement on March 12 that schools, nurseries and universities would close the following Monday: “At that point, you could see it was really serious. It was a huge shock; I’d never seen anything like it. We didn’t know how long it was going to last – and it drove me mad a bit to say to myself that I didn’t know when I would see my loved ones again.”

Morgane said she is a bit of a “hypochondriac” and that she “panicked at the slightest thing” when she went to vote in the first round of the local elections on March 15. “I’ve never cast my vote with a sense of anguish like that; I freaked out whenever I saw anyone coming too close to me,” she put it.

The way the government communicated the developments in mid-March fueled her anxiety, Morgane added. After the school closure announcement on March 12, bars and restaurants were shut with immediate effect on the evening of the 14th – but then the local elections went ahead as planned on the 15th, before Macron’s address the following day. “It was a real emotional rollercoaster,” Morgane said.

As a teacher, Pierre’s experience of the closure of schools was somewhat different: “We could see it coming for a few days before it happened, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise.” However, he expected that the lockdown would “only last two weeks”. A striking memory is going for a bike ride along the Riviera and finding “a lot of people on the streets, looking like they were going to be locked up and that they wouldn’t be able to escape it”.

Others were filled with foreboding from early March onwards. “I’d go and play sport and we’d all greet each other with the kiss on the cheek – but I was having to take a step back at that point and say how we have to be careful. People were saying ‘oh come on, it’s nothing!' "I heard that on March 9. Eight days later, we were under lockdown.”

This article was translated from the original in French.


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