French Take Their Apéros to the Streets, Testing Lockdown Limits


PARIS — Annoyed at their government, the French have taken to the streets brandishing drinks.

With bars still closed despite the loosening of France’s coronavirus lockdown, the pre-dinner drinking tradition of the apéro has given way to the apérue: clusters of revelers on the streets, or rues, of Paris, outside establishments that are allowed to offer takeout.

“They’re forcing us to do infantile things all the time,” said Frédérick Cassea, who was having drinks with two friends in front of Le Syndicat, a bar in the 10th arrondissement.

“We’re all adults, we’re all responsible, we’re all aware of what’s going on,’’ Mr. Cassea added, describing the apérue and other acts of “civil disobedience” as a reaction to the government’s “catastrophic” handling of the epidemic. “Treating us like kids doesn’t work for long.”

France is emerging from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, two months during which people had to fill out paperwork just to step out of their homes. But as restrictions remain, the French are now testing the limits of what the government will allow, in a continuing cat-and-mouse game that speaks to an unusually personal and emotional relationship between the individual and the state.

ImageGathering on the Esplanade des Invalides.
Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

On Thursday, the government said that France’s initial reopening had gone better than expected and announced further measures to take effect in the coming days.

Secondary school students will head back to the classroom in most of the country. Parks and beaches will be reopened nationwide. People, now restricted to a radius of 100 kilometers — about 60 miles — from their homes will be able to travel freely again.

But the government remained cautious, especially in reopening Paris, the area hardest hit by the virus. Restaurants, cafes and bars will be able to serve customers only on terraces. Swimming pools, sports facilities, concert halls and theaters will not reopen until the third week of June. Nationwide, gatherings of 10 people at a time and group sports will also remain prohibited until then. The government also urged people to keep working at home.

In recent days across the country, amid expectations that the government would ease the rules, a growing number of people were already staring to ignore of them. In Marseille, beachgoers illegally dipped into the Mediterranean Sea, while in Strasbourg a crowd of some 300 supporters gathered around a soccer field on Sunday to watch a game.

Fearing that people would misbehave, the government for weeks refused a request from the Paris mayor to reopen the city’s parks. Accusing the government of “infantilizing” them, Parisians — no masks, no social distancing — have begun taking their apérues outside bars, or along city canals, the banks of the Seine or the sprawling lawns of the Invalides. The police are sent in. Feelings are hurt.


Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“It’s a trap,” Martin Legagneux, in the middle of an apérue with Mr. Cassea, said, referring to the Canal Saint-Martin, a popular spot where throngs enjoying wine and beer in the Paris spring have been dispersed by the police.

With city parks closed, Mr. Legagneux added, people were drawn to the canal, where they stood and sat too close to one another, in too great numbers, drawing rebukes from the authorities.

“Regarding the irresponsibility of some people and their behavior, I find it a bit easy to point out this kind of thing when the state, originally, should have taken action much sooner,” said Mr. Legagneux who, like most French, believed that the government was slow and unprepared in face of the epidemic.

The epidemic spiraled out of control in France, which lacked the masks, tests and contact tracing infrastructure to rein in the initial outbreak. France has suffered one of the world’s worst fatality rates from Covid-19 and more than 28,500 deaths, ranking only behind the United States, Britain and Italy.

Since the lockdown was first relaxed on May 11, infections and deaths have continued to decrease, thanks to the continuing practice of working from home, a very gradual increase in social interactions, the wearing of face masks, and a possible weakening of the virus, said Nicolas Revel, the head of France’s health insurance system, which is managing the country’s new contact tracing efforts.


Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

But Mr. Revel said that he was worried by the increasing numbers of people out in public places.

“Anything that, during a period when the circulation of the virus remains present, boosts close contact is obviously a potential source of risk,” he said.

As the coronavirus spread across the globe in recent months, it has sharpened, in each country, the different relationship between government and citizen.

In France, “the state is sacred, and has remained monarchical, it is transcendent, and so we expect a lot of the state,” said Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist who is writing a book on the relationship between the French and the state. “But there is a certain ambivalence. At the same time that we’d like the state to take care of everything, we’d like it to allow us to decide what we want.”

As a result, “gray zones” emerge in which unspoken negotiations take place, Mr. Wieviorka said, adding, “It’s a very powerful state but one with which you can reach a compromise, so the French are searching for how far they can take this or that.”

During the 55-day lockdown, the police carried out 20 million spot checks in public places and issued 1.1 million fines, mostly to people who had left home without filling out the proper forms.


Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

One of them was Émilien, a 23-year-old student in Paris who spent the lockdown on Île de Ré, an island with many vacation homes, and was fined 135 euros, or about $150, for being outside without the form.

He and a friend went jogging in a forest that was closed to the public on a recent Saturday, when they ran into two police officers issuing warnings to two other offenders, recalled Émilien, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of running afoul of the authorities he evaded.

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“The moment we saw them, they were about 10 meters away,” or about 30 feet, he said. “We sprinted off, with one of the officers chasing after us. It lasted maybe 30 seconds. He wasn’t dressed suitably at all. He was wearing pants and we had a head start. He ran pretty fast, but eventually he gave up.”

Émilien explained that he didn’t want to incur another fine. But he also thought that closing off the forest, or a nearby beach, made little sense.

“I felt like a child being punished without understanding what I did wrong,” he said.

Critics have said that the French government has infantilized its own citizens by making the relaxing of restrictions dependent on people’s behavior, as if it were a parent dangling rewards in front of children.


Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

In early May, the junior minister for tourism, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, said that summer vacations, which are sacred in France, would “depend on the efforts that people will be able to make throughout the reopening phase,” infuriating social media users who mocked the French state’s own mistakes in preparing for the crisis.

With parks and bars still closed in Paris, people have sought every inch of available space for their apérue, including a roundabout in Place de la Nation. There, groups ranging from two to eight people shared pre-dinner drinks, with bursts of laughter punctuating conversations, as they enjoyed the last rays of sunshine.

“If the parks were open, I wouldn’t have come here — it’s too noisy and polluted,” said Nabil Hamidi, a 32-year-old bank employee, pointing to the surrounding traffic. “But this is the only place we can find that’s open.”

The government has yet to say when bars might reopen. But squeezed between Mr. Hamidi’s legs was what he called “the bar,” a black backpack containing a few bottles of alcohol and evidence, for now, of the compromise between one French citizen and the state.


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