Months ago, I received a convocation—a summons—to renew my carte de séjour. I was told to present myself at exactly 8:35 a.m. at the Préfecture de Police in the IVe arrondissement on March 16th, 2020.
The annual convocation at the Préfecture is a grave ritual for every foreigner in France. The list of documents you must provide is long, strange, and very precise. There are infinitely many rumors about how the process really works. No one is exactly sure.
So far, I’ve been highly impressed by the French bureaucracy. Their paperwork requests are peculiar, but if you give them exactly what they request, they will in turn be polite, competent, professional, and charming. It’s not a surreal and sadistic game, like the Turkish bureaucracy. In its own way, it works very well.
This time, though, I figured the convocation was a death sentence.
There would be hundreds of people on line to enter the Préfecture. No matter how early you get there, you end up standing outside with all the coughers and nose-pickers. They squeeze you in groups of about twenty into a small antechamber, where you wait to go through the security line to have your bag x-rayed. One of the baggage screeners, I was sure, would be named “Patient X” in the literature.
Then you wait for your convocation in a crowded room. No one’s sure who will be summoned next or why, so people crowd together near the officials until they’re called or shooed away. Like seals at feeding time. You sit on plastic chairs—a virus can live on those things for weeks. They’re still finding the skeletons of the victims of the bubonic plague beneath the ground.
It occurred to me that everyone else, just like me, was obliged to be there—even if they knew they were sick. Even if they were gasping for oxygen and dribbling with fever sweat. People would crawl right out of the ICU to make sure they didn’t miss their convocation.
I do it every year, so I know the routine. You slowly pass your papers back and forth with an official who inevitably touches her nose as she studies them. She passes them back to you, telling you to re-order them. She licks her fingers to leaf through documents.
I was good as dead.
Then it occurred to me, on Sunday morning, that we had all been officially advised to stay at home. We were not supposed to go out unless our business was “essential to the life of the nation.” Was this appointment, I asked myself, essential to the life of the nation? What did essential mean, precisely?
I asked my friends. Without hesitation, they said, “Of course it is.”
They were right, I figured. It’s a paradox. A nation in which convocations are inessential might still be a nation, but it would not be the nation of France.
I resigned myself to my fate and put my papers in order.
I rose early and set off for my apointment in Samarra. I wore gloves, and I brought my own pen. I put a vial of rubbing alcohol in my handbag. (You now have a better chance of finding the Hope Diamond in your trash bin than finding hand sanitizer in Paris.)
There was a long line, as I expected. But everyone was keeping a meter’s distance from each other, just as the government advised. The line stretched all the way to the Quai du Pont Neuf. Asian women wore masks, and African men tied scarves around their faces. We all carried certified translations of our birth certificates, two copies of our most recent electricity bill, four regulation-sized photographs, and signed certificates swearing our commitment to the non-practice of polygamy.
I waited with the rest of the supplicants. We watched each other uneasily. No one coughed.
Suddenly the doors of the Préfecture opened, and a phalanx of policewomen barged out. They looked at us like we were imbeciles, and barked, “Rentrez chez vous!”
What part of essential to the nation did we not understand?
I wasn’t the only one horrified by the sight of the nose-blowers and cheek-kissers by the Seine. Those scenes were all over the news. They caused a scandal. Overnight, the government realized that no, you can’t trust the French people to understand the seriousness of the situation. Thus we have now been ordered to stay inside our homes. Not advised. Ordered. We may not step outside without a permit.
This has never happened before in peacetime France.
President Macron addressed the nation last night, using the words “at war” six times. The Decree of March 16, 2020, published officially this morning, forbids all movement outside save to seek food or medical care. Dogs may relieve themselves, but there’s to be no social dog-walking. One person per dog—and get it over with quickly.
Interior Minister Castener has put 100,000 police and gendarmes on the streets to enforce the decree. “The orders are clear,” said Castaner. “Stay at home.”
Vehicular police are deployed in fixed and mobile positions on the main and ancillary traffic axes. “There is no glory,” Castener intoned, “in refusing to submit to health measures and, through irresponsible behavior, becoming an ally of the virus.”
This is all very strange. I wrote this ten years ago, and I must say—though I do fully agree with Castener—that I was mostly kidding:
So I’ll be here in my apartment for the foreseeable future. I guess that’s okay. It’s a nice apartment. It’s cozy. I always feel guilty for not going out more and taking advantage of all that Paris has to offer, anyway.
French officials are now just trying to keep two things working: the health system and the food chain. They’re working non-stop to identify every weak link in the supply chain. (If Americans aren’t yet looking for those, now’s the time.)
You know, I’ve been genuinely worried about nuclear war—and frankly, I’m even more persuaded now that the risk of blundering our way into that is far higher than most people think. But all this time, I’ve never lost sleep worrying about pandemics and starvation. Yes, abstractly, sure—as an intellectual exercise. But deep down? I really figured modern societies had that stuff down cold.
Live and learn, I guess.