'Everyone is afraid of everyone': Life under lockdown in France

Key Points
  • On Tuesday, France announced further measures to stem human movement in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 1,000 people in the country of 67 million.
  • France has a confirmed case count of more than 22,600, the fourth highest in Europe. 
A man pulls a shopping trolley near empty stalls in a supermarket in the Qwartz shopping centre in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, north of Paris, on March 2, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images

Two weeks ago, everything felt normal for most people living in France. But as coronavirus cases climbed, the country became unrecognizable — practically overnight. 

"I haven't moved from home for the past four, five days, but outside it's surrealistic," Gerald Carmont, a 60-year-old Frenchman working in educational services just outside of Paris, told CNBC over the phone. "It's like you're living in a death place."

"There is no life, you get a few food shops that are open, most of them will give you gloves and masks when you enter and you can't touch anything, the cashiers are protected by glass screens. It's amazing, and it all happened so quickly because about two weeks ago, everything was normal. And then, all of a sudden, the country went down." 

Like many other countries in Europe and increasingly around the world, France has gone into official lockdown, closing all but essential businesses and urging residents to stay indoors, under penalty of fines and arrest. 

Paris, France. March 24, 2020.
Amel Lamloum

On Tuesday, France announced further measures to stem human movement in an effort to combat the spread of the virus, which has now killed more than 1,000 people in the country of 67 million. It's become the fifth country to reach that figure, and has a confirmed case count of more than 22,600, the fourth highest in Europe. 

"Going out to go for a walk with your children or to do some exercise will have to be in a one-kilometer radius from the house, maximum for one hour and, of course alone, and only once a day," French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the nation in a televised speech Monday night. 

"I insist on these rules," he pleaded. "It means people will have to put a date and a time on the permission form they have to carry when they go out. It's essential that these rules must be strictly respected by everyone and I'm calling on everyone (to take) responsibility."

A permission slip to leave the house

The country has deployed police to the streets to ensure compliance, and residents are required to carry a form with them whenever they leave their houses. The form states their address and lists five reasons for going outside: buying groceries, going to the pharmacy or doctor, going to work if it's impossible to work from home, looking after children or the elderly, or exercising or walking the dog. 

Outdoor exercise must be limited to once per day, for no longer than an hour, and no farther than one kilometer (0.62 mile) from the house. 

"We present the paper to the police when they see us," says Amel, a 30-year-old airport services worker in Paris who was put out of work this week but is being provided a reduced salary by the government. "There is no one outside, it's quite depressing, the shops are closed. There is this fear — people are staying away from each other, not even smiling, it's weird." 

"Even in my own family they are scared of me, because I would go outside for work," Amel said. "They ask me, 'Have you washed your hands? Take off your coat, don't sit there, don't enter this room.' Everyone is scared of everyone, as if everyone has COVID in them."

A Paris metro train sits practically empty as France's residents stay in their homes with most of the country's businesses shut as the country enters its second week of coronavirus lockdown. March 24, 2020.
Amel Lamloum

She described empty shelves and deserted metro stations, as well as rushes for toilet paper, pasta and hand sanitizer in grocery stores. 

There is no consensus as to how long life will continue to be under lockdown. But many health experts believe things will get worse before they get better, estimating at the very least two to three more months of populations having to remain indoors and isolated from one another.

But there are some positives coming out of this, added Amel, who also works as a part-time yoga teacher with a strong online following.

"There is this vibe of content creators, wellness coaches putting out so much positive to counterbalance everything that is going wrong, on Instagram Live and other social media. So this is nice," she said.

"This helps, but the majority I think are going very deep into a negative mentality and I am afraid of what might happen if they keep going."

Life in smaller towns: 'Solidarity and community'

Outside of the major cities, life feels a bit less tense, although still far from normal. Anita, a French mother of three living in the Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle, described a sense of solidarity and a broad respect among residents for the new rules.

"All stores are well-stocked here and the little butcher shop is open only mornings to limit having people outside and to protect themselves," she told CNBC. "People understand about buying for a couple of days and not a couple of weeks." 

"People also stay about two meters (6.5 feet) away from each other. They are quite serious about it but they still say hello and smile." She says she hasn't seen many people wearing masks in La Rochelle, a city of roughly 75,000, "as they are much needed for doctors and nurses. Only elderly people or people in poor health wear them."

Shoppers wait in line to enter a local bakery, several feet apart, exercising the French government's social distancing guidelines as the country begins its second week of coronavirus lockdown. La Rochelle, France, March 24, 2020.
Anita Berthelin

Anita and her family have been able to go outside daily to walk their dog and get some fresh air, she said, thanks to access to nearby green spaces that fall within the one kilometer limit. She described meditation and calling family members as an important part of her daily routine, as well as a conscious effort to limit her television news intake. 

"The government asks to not visit elderly family members but to call, FaceTime etc," she added. "They insist on keeping in touch strongly." 

A man walks his dog through empty streets during the once-a-day outing permitted for exercise under France's nationwide coronavirus lockdown. La Rochelle, France, March 24, 2020.
Anita Berthelin

Jonathan, an American expat who recently moved to La Rochelle to retire, described well-organized stores that appeared dedicated to keeping employees and customers safe.  

"From a distance, we say bonjour and acknowledge each other," he told CNBC. "We still have brief conversations — there is a lot of solidarity and community."

While in line at the grocery store last week, Jonathan recounted, customers were making analogies about their grandparents during the Second World War, and the immense challenges that generation faced. 

As people nodded in affirmation, he recalled, one young man replied in frustration: "Yes … but this time, we can't fight back."