‘Someone has to keep the country going’: A pre-dawn commute with essential workers in Paris

Bus route 351 ferries commuters to and from the Paris airport, snaking its way through neglected suburbs of the French capital.
Bus route 351 ferries commuters to and from the Paris airport, snaking its way through neglected suburbs of the French capital. © FRANCE 24

Throughout the pandemic, bus route 351 has ferried pre-dawn commuters between Paris and Charles-de-Gaulle international airport, slicing across neglected suburbs of the French capital hit hardest by Covid-19. FRANCE 24 followed the essential workers – including nurses, technicians and freight workers – for whom lockdown never happens.

Advertising

Every morning, Farid* sees the same people peering at him through the folding doors of his bus. He has come to recognise them, despite the masks covering much of their faces. 

“They’re the ones who get dressed and go to work every morning, whatever happens – just like me,” says the 46-year-old driver. “Lockdowns come and go, but we’re always here. Someone has to keep the country going.”

There’s no bitterness in Farid’s words, though the father of three says he often heads to work with his stomach in a knot. 

“We try not to talk about these things between drivers, but we know some routes are more risky than others,” he says. 

Bus route 351 snakes its way across the Seine-Saint-Denis area northeast of Paris, the poorest département in mainland France and which has been pummelled by successive waves of Covid-19. Along the way, it picks up the frontline workers who have kept the metropolis running throughout the pandemic.

The freight terminal at Charles-de-Gaulle airport, the final destination for many passengers on route 351.
The freight terminal at Charles-de-Gaulle airport, the final destination for many passengers on route 351. © France 24

Dawn is yet to break when Farid starts the engine at Place de la Nation on the eastern edge of Paris. The first passengers promptly get on the bus, all but one of them sporting a face mask.

“It happens, but it’s not my job to police them,” says Farid with a shrug. 

Sometimes he offers a mask from his own stock, supplied by the Paris transport authority. Alternatively, he plays a pre-recorded message reminding passengers to cover their faces or face a fine. This time he does neither.

‘Covid killed half the residents at my care home’

Seated next to the exit, 55-year-old Betty is on her way to a nursing home in Bondy, one of a dozen French towns where the rate of Covid-19 infections has surged to four times the national average. The care worker, who lives in the southern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, has already taken a bus and a tram to make it this far.

“An hour and a half in public transport, that’s an awful lot – particularly when the bus is jam-packed, like the previous one in Vitry,” she sighs, wrapped up in her hooded puffer jacket. “But I have no other choice.”

Like many workers at France’s hard-hit nursing homes, Betty was ill with Covid-19 last year. With infections surging once again, she’s worried she’ll catch it a second time. 

“Covid killed half of the residents at my care home last year: only two on my floor, but every one of them a floor below,” she says. Still, Betty is in no hurry to get vaccinated, despite the priority given to staff and residents at nursing homes across the country. 

“I’m not required to get vaccinated,” she says. “Most of my colleagues have had both shots, but I’m waiting for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because I only want to face the needle once.” 

‘It’s a miracle I still have my job’

Farid’s bus soon fills up after crossing the périphérique ring road that circumscribes Paris, the physical and symbolic barrier separating the French capital from its nearest suburbs.   

First up is the town of Bagnolet, where a dozen passengers climb aboard. Among them is Moussa, a forklift operator in blue-and-red overalls, bound for the airport where he has worked for the past 15 years. 

“I’ ve got to drive my forklift, there’s no way I can work from home,” he mumbles, fighting back a yawn. Moussa says the bus is a lot busier when he goes to work at the weekend, due to repair works on suburban train lines. 

“It’s not so bad today,” he says, gazing at his fellow travellers. “Anyway, it’s not as if I had a choice, since I don’t own a car.”

While Covid-19 is always on the back of his mind, Moussa is even more concerned about the economic cost of the pandemic, which has left many of his colleagues jobless. His wife is also out of work. Now that French schools have closed again due to the worsening pandemic, she’s stuck at home looking after their two children. 

“It breaks my heart to see all those planes grounded on the tarmac at Charles-de-Gaulle,” says Moussa. “I know several people who lost their jobs – all those who prepared cabin meals and cleaned the planes.”

Moussa, a forklift operator and regular passenger on bus route 351.
Moussa, a forklift operator and regular passenger on bus route 351. © France 24

A few seats away, Franck is hoping to catch one of the planes scheduled to fly out of the Paris airport in a few hours. He’s busy trying to upload the results of his all-important PCR test. 

“I already missed a plane yesterday because the lab was slow to release the results,” he mutters, his eyes glued to his phone. Franck works in the marketing division of a major airline. He’s on a business trip, bound for Riyadh.

“It’s a miracle I still have a job,” he says. “And don’t expect things to get better any time soon. It will take at least three or four years for the industry to recover from this mess.”

A frequent traveller on route 351, Franck is increasingly fed up with the lengthy journey and the behaviour of some fellow passengers.

“I’m appalled by the disrespect from people who wear their masks under their noses or chins,” he explains. “I can accept limits to my freedom, but only if everyone plays by the rules.” 

‘Leave public transport to those who have no choice’

Despite the unsocial hours, many commuters have picked up the habit of leaving even earlier in the hope of avoiding crowded buses. They include Laurent, 46, who works for an aerospace parts manufacturer near the airport.

“I readily let one or two buses go by if I feel they’re too full,” he says. “Masks are not enough protection. I’m in good health and I intend to remain that way. So I’m not going to stand in other people’s faces.”

Seated right at the back of the bus, 22-year-old Denis says he also leaves a half-hour early to avoid rush hour. While his work – fitting new lifts at the airport – cannot be done from home, Denis says other passengers should avoid crowding public transport during the pandemic.

“Those who can work from home should leave public transport to those who have no other choice,” says the resident of Blanc-Mesnil, one of the poorest suburbs in Seine-Saint-Denis.

Government statistics suggest Denis is right to complain. Last week, the labour ministry said more than a third of people who could work from home continued to commute to their places of work.

After a brief coffee break, Farid sets off from Charles-de-Gaulle airport on his way back to Nation.
After a brief coffee break, Farid sets off from Charles-de-Gaulle airport on his way back to Nation. © France 24

At the airport terminal, Farid stops for a coffee before driving back to Nation. In the absence of cleaning staff, he makes sure all doors and windows are open to at least ventilate the bus.

“The buses are only disinfected at night, between midnight and 6am,” he explains. “I open the windows, but I know the passengers will soon close them because they’re cold or don’t want to get wet.”

Like other drivers, Farid is annoyed at the Paris transport authority for removing the plexiglas barriers that protected them during the first lockdown. 

“It doesn’t make any sense, just when they tell us that new variants [of the coronavirus] are more contagious,” he sighs. Unions have also protested at the decision to reintroduce the sale of tickets on board buses, which means drivers have to handle cash. 

On the other hand, Farid is relieved that the government has caved in to pressure to close schools, which health experts have singled out as a key driver of infections in Seine-Saint-Denis. His bus stops at several schools in the area, including the Lycée Eugène Delacroix in Drancy, where a staggering 20 pupils have lost a parent to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

“I’m happy to be of service and it’s obviously not their fault. But the last few weeks it felt like a burden having schoolkids on board,” says Farid. “I just kept quiet, put my hat on and left the window wide open.”

* Not his real name

This article was translated from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning