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Paris: Going social during the outbreak

 

Immediately after a partial relax of the lockdown Paris did not set itself to large street festivity. On May 11 streets were more saturated with people moving in between reopened shops than with those simply strolling, meeting and spontaneously chatting. The emancipatory shopping hasn’t stayed for the main expression of the rediscovered collectivity. Media quickly focused opinions on sunny picnics marking several urban locations. What draws smaller attention, the proportion of persons wearing masks in the street visibly decreases every next week-end. May 20 was the first evening when massive applause from Parisian windows and balconies, destined to medical workers, was scarce or interrupted. An important landmark in the perception of the epidemic has been crossed.

Meanwhile the virus is there. And the words designating what to do and what to avoid are weighty. They form a context in which reactions to risks are split: to get the virus or to get a fine, to lose job or to be deprived of essential liberties. Urban space is reset as a new space of competition, predefined by older tensions between lifestyles brought out in segregated factions of social classes.

 

To mask (not): contrasted social worlds

A double bind of epidemic self-control and of police enforcement is still urgent around the concept of distancing. Regional authorities continue to communicate preventive measures, such as a prohibition to gather in more than 10 persons in public, to take public transport unmasked and to consume alcohol in public spaces (this one to stop massive hangouts). Almost 1000 fines were imposed during the first week on those who left the 100km limit without permit.

Paris: Going social during the outbreak

While many parks are still closed following the same restrictive measures, in certain urban locations human density is simply impressive. As long as these locations “belong” to different social classes, a striking contrast is clearly observable in relationships with a fundamental epidemic object – the mask. Whereas white young bourgeois often avoid wearing masks, at least a third (or more) of black poorer young wear them.

Paris: Going social during the outbreak, ways to wear masks

This is partly explained by a much tougher police control, going up to arbitrary violence, destined to non-white populations during the lockdown. So, to wear a mask, especially for a young black man, is a protective measure… against the police. But that does not make the only reason.

Paris: Going social during the outbreak, ways to wear masks

Some wear masks as a conspicuous symbol that has little medical sense, but many do wear them constantly and thoroughly. “This is to respect the law, I do it like other citizens do,” a young construction worker comments, “Besides, the danger is still there”. His companion without mask keeps silence smiling. After a minute I discover that he speaks little French. Later I talk with a loquacious passer-by in the “African” district Goutte d’Or. “The mask makes sense, people are still dying,” he explains, readjusting his own one, “So, when you talk to someone or you just cross someone as close as we are now, you better put the mask on.” Contrary to stereotypes, these concerns brought by younger black population reveal their higher confidence to official information on the epidemic, as compared to progressively doubtful white bourgeoisie.

Paris: Going social during the outbreak, police unmasked

What about the police? They normally did not wear masks on the peak of the outbreak, and the vast majority continue not doing that. “But this is not our choice,” specifies informally a young policeman melted under the nice sun, “That’s because they just didn’t supply us with masks.” Another testimony comes from three weeks earlier, when policemen stopped me to control my self-provided certificate, mandatory for any kind of going out. I asked back my controller why they never had masks. His reply was shockingly bitter: “Our Minister told us that policemen don’t fell ill, Mister.” In fact, no doubts in means and rationale of the top-down management of the epidemic have ever been revealed or discussed officially. French authorities charged the population with total responsibility for virus propagation. As the Prefect of police in Paris stated at the peak of contagion, persons cured in resuscitation departments of hospitals simply “did not respect the lockdown.”

Paris: Going social during the outbreak: ways to wear the mask

Turning back to civilians, self-control progressively loosens. But even in the first “liberated” days bourgeois districts were demonstrating a noticeable variety of degrees and manners to wear the mask or not. They were tacitly referring to a functional acceptance or refusal, but also to silently operated reasons of physical appearance, more carefully maintained on higher steps of the social pyramid. One of the extremes backing the diversity of styles is an option “I don’t see why all that panic”. The opposite one refers to the generally accepted common danger. A pretty often observed compromise between the extremes is a way to accept the mask as an annoying obligation, taken off as soon as the place requiring it (a shop, for instance) is left. An alternative way is to keep it on during street walks, but to take it off when chatting or getting on bike, especially by those who wear glasses weeping from respiration. Sometimes taking off the mask in public place is seen as a vital social need. “I took a train and was horrified by all these masks defigurating the human and by the personnel constantly controlling us,” a young female editor tells her recent experience, “I went to the toilet and realized, that was the only place and the right moment to get rid of the mask and to get my face back!”

Paris: Going social during the outbreak, masks and gloves

Rare families take it really serious and opt for wearing also gloves, both adults and children. Meanwhile the majority easily avoids any substantial modification of “normal” ways to go out, where they are not forced to do that. This also concerns a pretty strict epidemiologists suggestion not to touch your face or mask after being out for a while. Persons do touch the masks to retouch their looks. Thus, together with functional relationship, the aesthetic aspect contributes to the entire COVID-cityscape. Staying in a vivacious urban location for some time, at one point you will necessarily notice a person adjusting her or his mask in the mirror of a shop window or simply trying to give it a more “attractive” look.

Paris: Going social during the outbreak, ways to wear masks

 

To shop (un)safely

Shops and markets were authorized to restart activities under condition to provide liquid hand sanitizers and to control clients wearing masks. At the same time shop employees are not obliged to pass any epidemic tests, as well as no control was provided for contact professions during the lockdown. “Several weeks ago, I had a strange flu and 38 degrees during a whole week,” a wine seller tells, “I think, that was it. But when I called a doctor, he suggested me to take an antifebrile and to stay home.” In general, French government regulates professions and communicates with communities rather loosely around COVID-19, leaving much of uncertainty in terms and conditions of rebuilding urban life.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

As for commercial spaces seen inside, plastic barriers protect cashiers and sometimes sellers, thus reasonably separating employees and clients. Meanwhile those who come shopping constitute an officially prescribed “gathering in more than 10 persons”, forcedly accepted for economic reasons. In general, the balance between epidemic and economic rationalities is pretty inexplicit and unsteady, often biased to one side or to the other depending on the interplay of the moment.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

While waiting lines to enter large stores and markets are mostly respectful to physical distance, and clients are gifted with a small drop of sanitizer at the door, once stepping inside, customers shift to more habitual conducts. For both space limitations and the aesthetics of everyday gestures, a large store becomes a strict opposition to what sanitary instructions and prescriptions suggest. In some places clients are explicitly invited not to touch unpacked food items; small dress and underwear shops may give you additional sanitizer before you touch the tissue. But all that is far from being generalized and systematic.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

City districts originally belonging to lower classes and progressively gentrifying in the last decades are full of small shops and open counters. The main regulation here during the lockdown were occasional police checks and raids, which sometimes get pretty close to the well-known episodes of “baton prevention” in India. That shows once again the lack of one way in which the city reacts to the epidemic. Multiple responses depend on the matter of social classes jointly managed through grass-roots behaviours and the ways the latter are top-down controlled. To go shopping barefaced may have different meaning for the person and for the policemen, depending on skin colour and on district where that takes place.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

In the whole city life that restarted one sector of small business is left in limbo. Restaurant owners laid the tables and keep themselves ready to receive clients at the first official sign. But unlike in Italy, Spain or China, no transparent plastic barriers or larger table spacing are introduced. “We ignore what to expect and at which moment, no instruction followed,” a young manager confesses. As some other restaurants, this one offers take away service, seeking to cover the inevitable loss. When I asked the personnel of another café the date they thought to reopen, they ironically redirected the question: “You better ask Mister Macron!” The ever-ready and ever-closed restaurants seem to be suspended in time, due to high uncertainty coming from local and national authorities.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

All that clearly gives to different social classes more reasons to sceptically receive restrictive messages and measures. This comes especially patent when the official communication is scanty and the control is daily implemented by policemen who are not protected themselves. During the last week, and in the previous month, interlocutors representing a fair diversity of social conditions repeat the same phrase I often heard before from the rebel Yellow Vests: “They take us for idiots, but we are not the ones!”

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

As well as many other COVID-realities, shopping practices give an example of a mixed bag. An intriguing hybridization is inevitable here of the freshly adopted / quickly evolving restrictions and unrevokable hygienic habits (for example, the way to bring home bread taken from bakery), of impatient expectations of both risk protection and of unrestricted liberties.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to go shopping

 

To hang out in new old ways

There was nothing obvious about being out during the lockdown. What gave it an even stranger shape, the police seemed to moralize sometimes too much sanitary restrictions, mixing them with prevention against joy and pleasure. For example, forest walking and lonely biking were restrained, to spite common sense of distancing. Selling alcohol and cigarettes for private consumption was authorized as “essential”, meantime some persons reported getting fines for having… sweets in their purchase bags. Whatever happens when strict limitations are dismantled, do relaxation and hanging out turn back to their old “normal” forms? Sometimes this is a simple “yes”, even at a price of disregarded epidemic alert, as seen in crowded urban locations. But some rather new practices are set abreast.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

One of such practices is having a picnic moment radically detached from green lanes and using virtually any street corner for a seated break. Coping with bare pavement, far from grass or water surface, that clearly rhymes with leisure forms set with the outbreak, when all public parks and green spots were shut down. Another way to hang out is not definitely new but got accentuated in ethnic districts after the lockdown was eased. It consists in chatting or simply standing attached to walls and facing the street.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

It looks particularly interesting when it comes to boarder zones, like in the shot above where a trendy Afro hairdresser adjoins a sumptuous French sweet-shop. It is even more spectacular in some urban spots that serve true sociability hubs. “Why are there so many young men?” I ask. “There are small shops, barber shops, social life around,” explains one of them. In fact, rich interactions turning around small inexpensive commerce, sometimes completed with side deal of smuggled cigarettes and light drugs, are far from being utilitarian. In some spots they do not even need shops to take place. And that is something clearly contrasting to crowds typical for pre-COVID white clubbing in districts like Marais or Oberkampf. Detached from drinking consumption, such presence stands for an ephemeral social club extended to street dimension.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

High stand commercial and bourgeois residential districts reveal predictably thinned patterns of street life. In many visible respects, there is “nothing new”, as long as basic practices did not change considerably even during the strict lockdown. Walking a dog, going out with a partner, jogging, rolling a shopping trolley to the nearest supermarket, briefly chatting to neighbours. Those patterns remain focused mostly on individual and family time management, as well as on transient friendly contacts incorporated in codes of courtesy and politeness.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

Physical distancing suggested by epidemiologists and largely rebaptized in “social distancing” remains an effective concern for a faction of city inhabitants. Self-discipline generates indignation against irresponsible crowds and those who neglect masks. “I don’t understand those people threatening our security,” comments a middle age professional. She continues to abstain from crowded places and outing with friends, she uses urban facilities with an extreme precaution and disinfects purchases at home. Limitations she accepted are not translated into narrowing social contacts. Her physical isolation is completed with enlarged family and friends networking via Skype, Whatsapp and Facebook, including those for which spare time had been lacking in “normal” life.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

Even though self-isolation brings universal fatigue, depending on social class, being alone may be lived as a security privilege or deprivation. Quality of emancipated time plays here a key role. Taking time to meditate and to restore human contacts is opposed to coping with anxiety of current job loss or of shaky future. In this context, vocabulary of social distancing gets its full sense where the epidemic amplifies precarity and contributes to a deeper social segregation. In fact, social distance is a property of collective body, much more than a metric division of individual ones.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

Pre-COVID rhythms turning back in some parts of the city are most palpable where leisure time is performed actively. Previously deprecated biking, skating and picnics refill usual places accenting corporal plasticity and scenic exposure. Even jogging gets used much less to escape from the isolation, turning to its “normal” scale and schedule.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new and old ways to pass leisure time

 

To get places

Physical space is reshaped too, after the COVID peak passed and competing activities started taking over them. A long walk crossing Paris downtown, especially in the first week after the strict lockdown is over, leaves at times an impression of a post-war city. While nothing is profoundly damaged, where the feeling comes from? From scenes of unexpectedly abandoned corners in very central streets, from masked faces and human postures loosening bourgeois codes, from empty restaurant windows, torn newspapers on the ground, and light constructions left in the mid-way… Human density also changed, implicitly contradicting the body memory of familiar places. Strangely enough, the bellicose pathos of official discourses gets here a visible incarnation. Ironically, the war scene does not at all localize where it was expected to be.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

Unplanned reappropriation of places contributes to create whole pieces of new cityscape. To come to downtown from lower class suburbs and to spoil old electoral publicity with crying tags sounds like an echo of class war, this time reaching a deeper territory. A parallel trajectory of space shift is calm and silent. Temporary workers and homeless persons who are already there, masterly recycle and gently readjust oddly composed spots to provide themselves with a fragile comfort.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

Children are true masters of recreating places. This is mostly ephemeral and does not leave deep trace. Besides, children from white French families are often tightly framed from their early age, so that parks and playgrounds are privileged for loud self-expression. But in this still-shifted urban condition streets are capable to absorb and to reflect more than usual. If some half-abandoned spots make think of a post-war city, some others give a subtle allusion to the interwar era (1920-30), where streets of Paris publicly presented a true kaleidoscope of human practices and gestures.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places
Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

In a cityscape which is partly discharged from usual car and human flows, the material expression of homeless life gets more visible. It may take form of some exuberant installations, attracting views, which resume the idea of home stripped of its shell. It may also come to sensibly discreet shapes which use closed restaurant terraces as temporary bedrooms. Most of these installations are neutral to places, chosen for purely instrumental or safety reasons. But some stories stand out.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

Carlo comes from one of Balkan societies torn into pieces by brutal wars in the 90s. Ancient warrior escaped from unbearable violence, he arrived to the safe Western Europe and settled down in France. His dream of a new calm home turned into homeless life. What is special in the attitude to his “own” place, he beautified the street with plants and reproductions of classic European art. Opposed to habits of modest youth hangouts on the other side of the street, he tidies the place from broken bottles and litter. Conflicting vulnerabilities that use the same street are not exclusively aesthetic. In a light form they reveal the potential of self-managed space, popping up from under institutionally provided order.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

In a more general way, streets and squares of a large city are zones of perpetual collision of lifestyles and ways to present oneself. The epidemic did not fundamentally modify that. Institutional order is never reduced to self-control granted to citizens and calls for disciplined force which neutralizes the potentially flourishing expression and competition. Following the track of recent social mobilisations, it drives there police who manages the bans. Every Saturday at Republic Square policemen launch reluctant calls for physical distance and more decidedly block any attempt of political manifestation. Trotskyists came to tract in different points of the spacious square witnessed they were pulled together by the police, to form a prohibited “group of 10 persons”. Standing shoulder to shoulder, in intimate physical contact, the policemen kept them encircled and immobilized during half an hour.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: ways to take over places

 

To reshape habits

The outbreak divided city spaces in residual and reinvented ones. Degrading some exiting establishments and facilities with simple inactivity, it left way to basic and more sustainable practices that may reside in habits. That is a paradox of any disaster: it lets exist something new or opressed for a long time.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new practices and habits

Biking becomes more frequent and more important while common urban transports still keep a mark of danger. Common sport- and playgrounds are kept closed, but a larger part of wealthier households equipped themselves with home gymnasium tools. Following market reports, sport industry get a weighty loss during the lockdown, as most of other sectors, while online trade of some sport chains doubled at the peak of contagion.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new practices and habits

In spite of a strive for normality, grass-roots claims for security are no less explicit. That brings to trivialize some anti-aesthetic elements of everyday presentation, like a bottle of alcohol sanitizer in the middle of “noble” alcohol bottles in a wineshop. The epidemic will be socially over when those elements disappear from trivial interactions. Would that happen with no trace?

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new practices and habits

Attention to the invisible virus and educational visualisation of the ways it transmits created new imaginary links of micro and macro levels in urban space. From hand skin to metal handles, from imperceptible breath droplets and masks to aeration systems in transport and shops, from sanitizer bottles to the whole variety of city objects: the virus is supposed to be reviving and dying in these transitions. The scale of this new layer added to city maps is incomparable to the XIX century hygienic imagination, full of pictures of insalubrity and of social class contrasts. The question is still there: would anything of this COVID-imaginary persist in future urban interactions?

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new space shapes

The epidemic generated both arrival of new space forms in the city and a decay of those existed before. Given the economic recession, one may suppose not all those places would be recycled and restructured immediately. So, during some time the city may keep a more patchy aspect, without any square meter being capitalized by a well established and aesthetically codified commerce. Would that bring to reapparition of a more colourful “interwar” variety of street life? Unregulated street trade, more visible hand work and handicraft, more spontaneous leisure and communicative expression?

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new space shapes

Striking urban economy and sociability, the outbreak simultaneously opened a gap to renewal of forms that city life may take. Some urban spots and dimensions were quickly refilled with habitual life forms, some others reveal practice being modified. In many respects, the post-lockdown city remains an unfinished sketch where you can hardly say what precisely you observe: an existing shape which is partly erased or a new one which is just started.

Going social during the outbreak in Paris: new space shapes

 

Click on photos to see the entire set in a better resolution.

 

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