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Archive for April, 2020

Pandemic lockdown: week 6

Paris, Bd Montmartre (Grands Boulevards),
Tuesday April 21st, 2:30 PM

[update below]

Or is it week 7? Each week resembles the previous one, as it does the next, and will until the May 11th D-Day, when the confinement will end, so Emmanuel Macron solemnly announced to the nation on April 13th. Not that life will revert to the status quo ante, of course; with restaurants, cafés, and cinemas closed until further notice, and with the continued necessity of social distancing (so no dinner parties anytime soon), I personally will not be venturing into the city too often.

As it happens, I went into Paris this past Tuesday, for the first time since the confinement began on March 17th, to take my wife in the car to her place of work, in the heart of the city (2nd arrondissement), where she had to pick up some IT equipment for her telework at home. I normally never, ever drive into the center of Paris during the week, let alone in the mid-afternoon, what with traffic, the near impossibility of parking, and simply the convenience of public transportation. As the traffic was light, to say the least, the voyage door-to-door took half an hour (normally it would be two to three times that). Driving through the empty city on a weekday afternoon, with everything closed and hardly anyone walking about—and despite the beautiful weather: sunny in the 70s F/mid-20s C, which is what it’s been for much of the month—was eerie, borderline apocalyptic. It’s as if the city had been hit by a neutron bomb. I know that it is likewise most everywhere else in the world but Paris is my city and where I live. Here are some images, taken by my wife from the car.

Hôtel de Ville

Rue de Rivoli (at the Louvre)

Boulevard Montmarte

Bd des Italiens & Bd Haussmann

Place de la Bourse

Rue Saint-Antoine

Place de la Bastille

My overriding sentiment at the apocalyptic spectacle of the empty city was sadness mixed with dread fear—for the future and of everything: the world economy and the consequences of the pandemic for humanity, France, Europe, America, my family (in the US and here: e.g. my 26-year-old daughter recently started her first career-type job and which is a good one, with a small company whose business is heavily dependent on international mobility and a strong globalized economy), for my own self and personal finances…

My anxieties and fears are that of several billion other people, that’s for certain.

Like everyone, I read numerous articles daily on the pandemic and watch/listen to the usual news programs and talk shows (for me, French public radio and TV). I can barely stand to read savant and other pundit speculation about what will happen down the road, as it only adds to the anxiety, but do nonetheless. E.g. one bleak piece read this weekend, which is surely on target in its prognostications, is by Jonathan V. Last, executive editor of The Bulwark (a new mouthpiece for anti-Trump conservatives, mainly orphans of the defunct Weekly Standard), “We cannot ‘reopen’ America.” The lede: “No matter when government stay-at-home orders are revoked, the American economy will not reopen. Because the source of the economic shock is not government orders. It’s the pandemic.” Last focuses on just two probable consequences of the pandemic: on the city of Las Vegas and on movie theaters, the former entirely dependent on tourism—and of the kind for which social distancing is not possible—the latter with the narrowest of profit margins even in the best of times. In short, Las Vegas risks being wiped out, with all the social consequences for the people there. Vegas will be an extreme case but towns and cities—whole countries—the world over whose economies are so dependent on tourism—Paris and France among them—will find themselves in much the same boat. As for movie theaters, most of them in America will likely not survive the pandemic. Such will hopefully not be the case in France, as the state may be counted on to save them. Hopefully.

Another bleak piece read this weekend is Andrew Sullivan’s weekly column in New York magazine, “We can’t go on like this much longer.” Sullivan, who has already had experience with pandemics (HIV), is despairing for the future. He begins:

I began to lose it this week.

And concludes:

[Trump] is an incoherent, malevolent mess of a human being. I used to be disgusted by him. I am now incandescent with rage at him and the cult that enables his abuse of all of us.

And so we wait. Absent a pharmaceutical miracle, we are headed, if we keep this up [i.e. Trump’s leadership], toward both a collapse in the economy and an inevitable second wave that will further cull the population. Yes, I’m a catastrophist by nature. I hope and pray something intervenes to save us from this uniquely grim future. But I learned something from the AIDS years: Sometimes it is a catastrophe. And sometimes the only way past something is through it.

France is fortunate not to be led by a madman like Trump, though the failings of Macron and the French state have been considerable. More on that another time,

In the same vein as Jonathan Last and Andrew Sullivan, Politico’s John F. Harris has a not-too-optimistic commentary, “Stop looking on the bright side: We’ll be screwed by the pandemic for years to come.” The lede: “Unfortunately, the history of the past generation justifies pessimism about the next one.”

In an academic vein, the very smart Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has a lengthy essay in the April 16th issue of the LRB, “Shockwave,” in which he weighs in “on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy.” His closing words:

The worst is just beginning.

Also in the April 16th LRB is the latest very smart essay by dear friend Adam Shatz, “Shipwrecked,” in which he discusses Covid-19 in America through the prism of Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s latest book, Le Naufrage des civilisations.

And in the vein of relevant contributions by dear friends, Human Rights Watch MENA division Deputy Director Eric Goldstein was interviewed on the HRW website (April 16th), “When health care is decimated by war: COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa.”

There is so much more to say.

La prochaine fois.

UPDATE: The morning after posting, I learned of the death to Covid-19 of Henri Weber (age 75), who was a major figure on the French left of the past five decades: in May ’68, then the Trotskyist LCR, before joining the PS in the 1980s and converting to social-democracy. I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone in 2017—a mutual friend put me in touch—to seek his help in organizing a visit for one of my classes (American students) to PS HQ on Rue de Solférino. He was warm and friendly and made the visit happen. A good man (and with good politics). When the bookstores reopen for business, I’ll pick up a copy of his autobiography, Rebelle jeunesse. R.I.P.

Follow-up: Laurent Joffrin has a remembrance in Libération, “Henri Weber, cheville ouvrière de la social-démocratie.” And Thomas Legrand in his Édito politique on France Inter.

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Jean-Noël Roy, R.I.P.

He’s the first person I know personally—the first friend, in effect—to die during the pandemic. He was 92-years-old, already unwell, and may or may not have come down with Covid-19. I’d known Jean-Noël since 1992, his wife, Marie, being one of my wife’s oldest friends, having thus met him soon after my then future wife and I started going out. We spent numerous weekends over the subsequent years/decades at Jean-Noël & Marie’s lovely home in a bucolic hamlet on the edge of the Rambouillet forest—in which we took many long walks, with Jean-Noël walking briskly ahead of everyone even into his 80s. And at the house he always enjoyed discussing politics and history with me, and talking about the latest books he had read (he was cultivated and continued his work as a documentary filmmaker almost to the end).

Jean-Noël’s son, François, has posted this faire-part on Facebook:

Jean-Noël Roy, né le 26 décembre 1927,

Mari, père, beau-père, grand-père et arrière grand-père d’une grande famille, composée, recomposée, adoptée, cooptée…

Il aimait formidablement les gens, la vie, la créativité, la fête, il était d’une grande générosité, c’était un esprit libre en perpétuelle rébellion contre toutes les formes d’injustices…

Auteur et réalisateur de télévision depuis 1954
Il a commencé sa vie dans le spectacle
au théâtre comme comédien.
Il est aussi scénariste, producteur de cinéma
et écrivain.

Il fait partie des premiers réalisateurs de la télévision française,
et choisit de travailler dans tous les genres
et selon toutes les techniques,
avec une préférence pour le direct,
pour transmettre instantanément au public,
toutes les transformations de la société et de la vie…

[Sa famille a] la tristesse de vous faire part de sa disparition, le 12 avril 2020.

Jean-Noël recounted a number of personal stories to me, which I have in turn regularly told to my American students in courses I’ve taught on France or European history over the years, most recently this semester. One of them was about his grandfather, Marcel Grateau, who invented and patented the Marcel hair curling iron. When Jean-Noël was a boy, his grandfather—shortly before his death in 1936—told him of having been an apprentice coiffeur in Paris during the Commune in 1871. During the Bloody Week, the infamous General Galliffet lined up dozens of men in Montmartre, Marcel among them, and ordered all to open the palms of their hands. Those whose hands were calloused, indicating that they were laboring men, were executed on the spot, so Marcel told his grandson, but his hands being soft, as he worked in a hair salon, he was spared.

Another story was in Paris during the German occupation, in 1941, when Jean-Noël was 13-years-old and in lycée (a bourgeois institution in those days). There was a Jewish boy in his class, whom several of his classmates started to taunt one day. Other boys in the class, including Jean-Noël, came to their Jewish camarade’s defense, with a brawl ensuing. I took his story to be a metaphor—and with Jean-Noël entirely agreeing with me—of the profound division—roughly down the middle—in French society at the time, between conservative, Catholic, anti-Semitic France—and pétainiste—and republican laïque France, which adhered to the universal values of the French revolution.

Another World War II story concerned the United States. In the two years preceding the D-Day landings, the Americans and British engaged in heavy aerial bombardment of France, striking industry, infrastructure, and other targets of possible military value to the Germans. But the Americans and Brits proceeded differently. When the British bombers raided, they flew low for greater accuracy, though at greater risk of being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. As for the Americans, whose military doctrine has always privileged force protection, their bombers flew high, to stay out of range of German fire but sacrificing accuracy in the process. So to compensate, the payloads of US bombers were greater, i.e. they dropped a lot more bombs, with the inevitable “collateral damage.” The consequence of this was 67,000 French civilians killed by Allied aerial bombardment, largely American—with many more wounded, hundreds of thousands of housing units destroyed, large parts of cities reduced to rubble… Jean-Noël said that when people heard the Allied bombers, they could tell if they were American or British by how high they were flying, and when they were American, people were terrified. As it happens, Jean-Noël’s story was confirmed by an elderly woman from the Angers-Nantes area I met in 2002, who said precisely the same thing (and with these stories confirmed by historians).

One Jean-Noël story I liked was of his trip to Chicago in 1961, to do a report for French television of the delivery to United Airlines of the first of some twenty Caravelles, the short/medium range jet airliner it had ordered from Sud Aviation. The Caravelle was my favorite jet aircraft as a boy and into my teens. I flew it on Air France, Alitalia, Iberia, SAS, and Sterling Airways—and on United, in July 1967, from Cleveland to Milwaukee, my first plane ride all by myself (I was 11; there were only maybe two or three other passengers, so we were put in first class, where I was given a complementary pack of cigarettes…). United was the only American carrier to fly the Caravelle, though the bulk of its short/medium range jets were Boeing 727s (the workhorse jet of US and other carriers, along with the DC-9).

Given the rules of the pandemic confinement, only immediate family members will be allowed to attend Jean-Noël’s funeral. What a terrible time we’re living through.

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