Once Upon A Time In France: Confinement Confusion, Local Languages, And The Fall Of Roman Numerals

Dreaming of the Pic Du Midi

In the department of small victories, I went last week to see my doctor who confirmed my eligibility for the vaccine. Such visits are very emblematic of the French health care system, something I’ve come to appreciate over the years.

My doctor works alone in her cabinet where she answers the phone herself and makes her own appointments and does, well, pretty much everything. It all feels very quaintish 1950s, but in a positive, intimate way. There is virtually no bureaucratic or administrative barrier between patient and doctor. My doctor only last year began accepting bank cards for payments, and so I no longer have to remember to bring my checkbook to every visit. And recently, she even joined Doctolib.fr, an online booking site that has no doubt reduced her phone call traffic.

So, I have an appointment at the end of the month for my first shot and then I’ll return sometime in late May for round two. It is part of a hopeful sign that France’s vaccination efforts, which have been the subject of much controversy, are accelerating.

But are they going fast enough? That’s a harder question to answer as we wait to see whether the vaccine campaign will eventually get ahead of the virus, particularly the variants.

Last week, as long feared, the government brought down the hammer and announced a new confinement for 16 departments (roughly the equivalent of counties), including the Paris region. Locals have been dreading this for weeks as case numbers rose, driven by those dreaded variants. There was a collective groan as parts of the country, mostly the north, head into their third lockdown of the past 12 months.

However, it turned out this was more of a velvet hammer. In fact, locals had to squint pretty hard at the fine print to see what exactly — if anything — had actually changed. The obvious restrictions included a ban on travel outside of these regions as well as a 10 km limit on the distance one could travel from home. And so people had to turn to the government’s handy-dandy distance calculator to see their travel circle.

But beyond that, there was much confusion. The curfew had been shifted from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., as if somehow throwing people that small bone would make ease the blow. Officially, people were banned from leaving their homes between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. But there were numerous exceptions that were so extensive that it basically felt like people could pretty much do everything they were doing before as long as they carried an attestation.

But that attestation one needed in theory to fill out was so complex and so full of contradictions on what people could do that #Absurdistan began trending on Twitter. After being the butt of jokes, the government changed its mind and said no attestation would be needed for trips within 10 km of one’s home.

So for most people, practically speaking, it felt like nothing much had changed.

However, the assumption that the lockdown would be suffocating triggered the now traditional Fleeing Of Paris. Train stations on Friday were jammed. The government tried to limit this, somewhat cleverly, by allowing people to work from their offices once each week and keeping schools open for in-person classes at least half the well. Which would suggest that people needed to remain home.

But that may have only slightly limited the exodus.

The goal of the confinement is to limit the spread of the virus, particularly the variants. Paris hospitals are overflowing again and patients are being shipped to other regions. But this Lockdown Lite seems likely to only have a minimal impact.

The government is moving to the next phase of vaccination in April as it opens larger vaccination centers. So once again, we are holding our breath to see if that vaccine surge will come soon enough to avoid a national lockdown.


Local Languages

France’s relationship to its regional languages has often been a tense one. Although there are about 75 regional languages in France, French remains the only official one and the rest have been fighting for their existence.

Where we live in Toulouse, Occitan has been trying to make a comeback for over a decade. Occitan is a Romance language that’s closer to Catalan than French. (Thus, (langue d’Occitan or Languedoc.) Announcements in the Metro are made in French and Occitan, and many street signs in the city center are written in both languages.

But while the regional languages are officially recognized in the French constitution as part of the nation’s cultural heritage, practically speaking it can be hard to obtain government funding for schools and cultural centers that keep these languages alive. Despite a big push by the regional government in the southwest, the number of people speaking Occitan in the Occitanie region has fallen from 10% to 7% over the past decade.

This is why partisans of these local languages are enthusiastic about the Loi Maloc bill advancing through the Senate. The law would give more support to teaching and promoting these languages.

But France is big on unity, and those differences raise the specter of division and inequality., and therein lies the ongoing tension. French Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer had opposed the law, saying the government was already doing its part to invest in such language education. Still, the Senate voted to advance the bill which was in the news last week because its second reading had been scheduled for April 8, after which it will likely become law.  

Just as that news was announced, there was a protest in Brittany because local leaders accused Blanquer of blocking an agreement that would have expanded the use of the Breton language on road signs and in the media. Such a framework would also determine the number of Breton teachers and training. They are also hopeful the new law will boost their cause.

During the initial debate on this bill last December, one Senator called regional languages the “charm of France” and said “regional languages ​​are the varied accents of our national language, the rivers that flow into the French ocean.” The new law should get those currents flowing faster.


The Fall Of Roman Numerals

There’s nothing the French love quite as much as a good Decline Of Western Civilization story. The latest one: The Carnavalet Museum of Parisian history seemed to recently suggest it would replace Roman numerals with Arabic ones due to a policy of “universal accessibility”. That is, Roman numerals were too hard for many visitors to understand.

So, would Louis XIV become Louis 14? The story triggered widespread forehead slapping in France as people bemoaned the growing illiteracy it implied. Then the Italians got wind of this and expressed their indignation.

According to Le Figaro, Italian writer Massimo Gramellini wrote in a local paper: “This history of Roman numerals represents a perfect synthesis of the ongoing cultural catastrophe: first things are not taught, then they are eliminated so that those who ignore them do not feel uncomfortable.”

After a couple of days of global backlash, the museum issued a new statement on the kerfuffle, though it was unclear whether it was a clarification or backpedaling. Most Roman numerals would remain in place. The museum was merely changing 170 texts out of 3,000 for the Arabic numbers, based on an EU policy of accessibility.

So Louis XIV will remain Louis XIV.


Dreaming Of France

The Pic du Midi de Bigorre is located in the Hautes Pyrénées department and the Occitanie Region. The observatory perched on top of the 2877-meter summit allows for panoramic views across the 300 km mountain ranges that run along the French and Spanish border.

Visitors reach the Pic by cable car and then can visit a history museum inside or dine at the restaurant which features everything from fast food to local dishes fit for gourmands. One can also choose to come in the evening, gaze at the stars through various telescopes, and then spend the night in one of the observatory’s cozy rooms.

Throughout the year, the Pic also hosts scientific presentations as well as musical and other cultural shows. Come for the views. Stay to be a little pampered.


Great Reads

The decision by the Lyon mayor to take meat temporarily off school menus continues to make international headlines. A Washington Post op-ed was followed by The New York Times story that noted the conflict within Macron’s government over the culinary tempest:

Mr. Macron’s government and party, La République en Marche, remain an uneasy marriage of right and left. The rising popularity of the Greens, who run not only Lyon but also Bordeaux and Grenoble, has sharpened a cultural clash between urban environmental crusaders and the defenders of French tradition in the countryside.

Not least, nothing gets the French quite as dyspeptic as disagreement over food.

Will a new edict from the government require the French to get a license to watch porn? Maybe they’ll have to settle for watching pandas having sex. Ikea and several local executives are facing trial on charges they spied on employees. France has decided to return a Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis in 1938 from an Austrian Jewish family.

Finally, another Times’ story wondered if Broadway should be taking lessons from the national protests in France by the arts community:

Not that those workers are likely to endorse the immediate reopening the French are seeking; by a strange quirk of political culture, the push for a return to normalcy at all costs that is a calling card of our right wing seems to be a progressive position there. The protesters — mostly students and actors and other theater workers — frame art-making as a matter of both liberty and labor. They see themselves as frontline workers; one of the signs they carried read: “Opening essential.”

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France