Health

Exiled Parisians face bittersweet homecoming as France eases Covid-19 lockdown

Fugitive Parisians were roasted for helping to spread the coronavirus when they raced for the countryside at the start of Frances lockdown. While some are now itching to go back, others are reluctant to surrender their bucolic havens for a return to urban life in the age of Covid-19.

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Forget the garden frolicking, the chirping birds and the indulgent meditations on burgeoning flowers: times up for the exiled Parisians who scrambled to the countryside on the eve of Frances nationwide lockdown.

Two months ago, some 1.2 million people fled the Paris region in a reverse rural flight that prompted howls of protests from countryfolk fearful of the spreading coronavirus. Now, residents of the French capital and its suburbs have been told they can head back the other way as the country prepares to end its lockdown on May 11.

Already, the logistics of their return from exile is a headache for the SNCF, Frances national train operator, which is running a limited service and can only fill 50% of seats to comply with social distancing rules.

But the government has pledged to let all Parisians return home, provided they carry a justification form required of all travellers who plan to cover a distance of more than 100 kilometres once the lockdown is lifted.

“When they left [their homes], they had the right to do so,” Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, explained on LCI this week. “Now we will not prevent people from returning home to resume their jobs and put their children back in school.”

Childcare conundrum

The prospect of returning soon is a relief for Jean-Christophe, a television producer based in Paris. He says he feared reprisals when he “slipped away” to a rental home in Normandy with his wife and daughter, one month into the lockdown.

“Parisians were very judgemental of those who left (…). Its true we had a feeling that we were jumping ship,” he says.

After weeks of juggling working from home and childcare, a return to office routine has become indispensable for Jean-Christophe, whose wife, a press officer, “spends 12 hours a day on conference call”.

“I need to be more efficient, re-establish physical contact and get the engine revving again,” he says. “And above all, our babysitter has confirmed shes back at work!”

Finding someone to look after her two children is a challenge for Alix, who spent the lockdown with her family in western France. She needs to get back to her floral decoration business, “before it goes bust”. Her husband has also been summoned back to his architecture firm. But the couple still have no guarantee their children will find a place at the nursery school.

Though French schools are due to reopen on May 11, their capacity will be severely reduced in line with sanitation guidelines. In Paris, priority will be given to the children of medical staff and other key workers.

When shes not applying for financial help for her business, Alix is “busy pleading with schools to put [her] boys on their priority lists.”

We wouldve gone nuts in Paris

The uncertainty surrounding the return to school — along with other aspects of Frances lockdown exit plan — has led some Parisians to choose to prolong their exile, provided their work allows it.

Clémence, a decorator, says she consulted with her sons teacher before deciding to stay on at her country home in Normandy. Like many colleagues across France, the teacher expressed concern about the decision to send children back to school while Covid-19 remains a threat.

“Home-schooling is not a problem for us, so I decided to leave my sons place to those who really need it,” says Clémence, who has no plans to return to Paris before September.

“Why would we go back? If school resumes, it wont be every day and the logistics will be complicated. Besides, we dont have a courtyard in Paris and children will have only limited access to parks and gardens,” she explains. “Here, at least, were in contact with nature.”

For Clémence and other exiled urbanites, the lockdown has been a chance to taste a different kind of living. All of them evoke a more “gentle way of life”, immersed in nature and far from the stress of the big city.

“We wouldve gone nuts in Paris,” says Clémence, summing up a sentiment that has inspired some fugitive Parisians to flee the capital for good.

Adieu Paris

Thats the conclusion Benjamin and his partner have come to. Having toyed with the idea for some time now, the Parisian couple have finally decided to quit the capital, definitively, after spending the lockdown in Brittany with their two boys aged 1 and 4.

Right now, Benjamin has no desire to go back to Paris, “where everything will be bleak: obligatory masks, no socialising, no room in schools.” Nor does the current economic gloom offer him any incentive to return to his work as an advertising producer.

“For the time being there will be no productions, no shootings,” he explains. “Weve got to be realistic. In our profession, social distancing is simply not an option.”

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