France on lockdown: Vacation for some, a nightmare for many

The coronavirus outbreak has brought to the fore the many social ills of French society.

France homeless
A woman runs as a homeless man looks on during the lockdown of coronavirus in Paris on March 27, 2020 [AP/Francois Mori]

On March 16, the French government announced that France will go under complete lockdown for 15 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order was subsequently extended for another 15 days.

All public institutions, restaurants, hotels and stores, except supermarkets and pharmacies, have been closed. Companies have been encouraged to switch to remote work for their employees and only those whose activity is deemed “essential” to the nation are allowed to operate in offices and factories.

France already has more than 78,000 recorded cases of COVID-19. On April 7, the number of deaths passed 10,000 and the peak is yet to be reached.  

It has been three weeks since the lockdown was imposed and it has already highlighted the deepening class divisions in French society. 

Many middle-class and wealthy families headed out of the big cities to their vacation homes and villas in the countryside. It is estimated that 1.2 million of metropolitan Paris’s 12 million inhabitants left between March 13 and March 20.

Several celebrities have been widely criticised for flaunting their luxurious ways of living under the lockdown. An article by writer Marie Darrieusecq describing her idyllic trips in the countryside and deer showing up in her garden caused public outrage, and so did a piece by actress and singer Lou Doillon who lamented the closure of art supplies stores, which should have been deemed “essential” to the nation.

Those who do not own a second home – mostly the lower middle and working classes – have stayed behind, crammed in small apartments with no yards or balconies where they could come out for a breath of fresh air. According to official statistics, 10 percent of the French population lives in overcrowded dwellings. In Paris, many migrants and poor people are forced to live in single rooms, as small as 2.5 square metres (27 square feet) and pay hundreds of euros of rent.

There also those who have no home to stay in. The homeless, migrants and asylum seekers and some Roma people living in camps cannot follow the government’s prescriptions for self-isolation, hygiene and social distancing because they simply have no homes and no access to clean water. While there is no reliable data on how many homeless people there are in France, one organisation has estimated that some 250,000 live in emergency accommodation or reception centres for asylum seekers.

The government allows people to go out for a very limited number of reasons in their neighbourhoods, including going to work, to the grocery store, for a short walk alone, with a child or a pet. To be able to do that, each person has to carry a printed, handwritten or electronic paper with an address and a date and the reason why they are out of their homes. 

That means you need to be literate or have someone help you to produce such a document and you need to have a printer or at least enough paper for the whole duration of the lockdown. Some homeless and poor people would not necessarily be able to produce such a paper.

Several homeless people in Lyon have already been fined by the police for being in the streets.

There have also been complaints from some poor and remote neighbourhoods that they do not have easy access to working supermarkets, as they are too far away for local residents to walk to. 

Another concern for many families has been the schooling of their children. Schools and universities closed on March 16 and online classes started a week later. This means that each child has to have a computer of his or her own in order to do that. For larger, poorer families this is a luxury, as is making space for all children of the family to be able to sit comfortably and do school work. Some parents also do not have enough education to be able to supervise their children’s schooling.

At the same time, working-class parents do not really have the option of working remotely. This means – if they have not been laid off already – that they will have to choose between working and potentially exposing themselves to the virus or staying at home jobless and taking care of their children – a truly impossible choice!

One delivery worker shared his frustration at not being able to see his family because of the lockdown and being forced to work without protective equipment. “Macron has forgotten us,” he wrote.

He is not alone. Over the past few weeks, workers who are risking their lives to continue providing “essential” services to the country have protested against unsafe working conditions. Ironically, the very managers in these companies responsible for the situation have been working from home.

Facing collective action, some companies, like Amazon, have announced they would be taking necessary measures to ensure the safety of their workers; others have not.

Thus as some enjoy the lockdown as a vacation or a time to reconsider their lives and tend to romanticise it, for many others it is yet another hardship they have to cope with in their constant struggle for survival.

The drastic measures taken by the government have acted as an amplifier of problems that have existed before. If this situation continues for long and if serious measures are not taken by the government, socioeconomic fractures in the French society will reach dangerous proportions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.