France is a champion at imposing strict lockdown measures. At least compared to my experience in Germany, the government here seems to wage a much more severe war against the virus. When leaving my house, I am obliged to carry a (digital) sheet of paper with me, listing information about my identity, address and purpose of the very necessary activity I’m about to do outside. Apart from grocery shopping and saving my grandma in need, I can even take a walk within a one-kilometre radius of my house. To have some fun, I recommend using an online tool to find out how much that would be in your place.
When hearing about these measures for the first time in March, I was convinced that living in France must be a nightmare at that time. So many rules severely inflicting people’s personal freedom! Most Parisians do not even have a proper park within one kilometre. How did they even survive?
Now, I’m right in the middle of this show’s second edition and yes, the measures are annoying. However, in March, I was unaware of a cultural aspect that significantly changes my perception of the situation: That France has more rules than other countries but that actually, less are being obeyed.
Rebels since 1789
Whether it was the French revolution or the desire to distance themselves from rule-loving Germany: To me, French people are rebels. There is something about the society and the legal system in this country that makes rule-breaking almost essential. Let me illustrate this slightly exaggerated statement with some examples.
Riding a bike in Paris is a great one to start with. Having lived in Munich for three years, I am used to cyclist executing emergency halts when their traffic light turns red and pedestrians not crossing an empty street for three minutes at 11pm. “Griller un feu rouge”, the French expression for crossing a red light, is in the basic vocabulary of every biker. If you don’t “grille” despite the obvious absence of cars, other cyclist will throw you a suspicious look while running the red light. Compared to pedestrians though, to whom traffic lights must be a myth, bikers are still pretty reasonable.
French rebel training starts early, as I got to experience during my two months student exchange at the age of 15. In order to be a good rebel, one first needs many rules that can be broken. The document incarnating the desperate attempt to impose rules on the youngsters of this country is called “carnet de correspondance”. Every student always carries this small booklet with them, enabling their teachers to “communicate” with disobeying children’s parents: Too late? The school’s gatekeeper leaves a note in the booklet. Forgot your homework? Your mum must sign a written warning. Talked in class? There’s a section for misbehaviour.
The booklet is thick and it’s all about discipline. However, it would be naïve to conclude that this country has more reasonable high school students than the rest of the world. On the contrary: My classmates were mocking their teachers through in-class PowerPoint presentations, some never did their homework and there were those who smoked weed in the schoolyard – sometimes even with the teachers.
School kids around the world do these things, but the contrast between the ideal – illustrated in the carnet de correspondance – and French reality is devastating.
Every day brings new examples of exaggerated rules and people breaking them. There’s an obligation to always wear masks in the streets, but some people don’t even wear one in the metro. The elevator in my building is restricted to one person now, but my fellow residents always invite me to share the ride. Probably the best example is provided by the new Covid restrictions though.
Deciphering the rules
When Emmanuel Macron announced the second edition of national lockdown last Wednesday, I was sad at first. The only friends I would see for weeks seemed to be my floormates. With a 135€ fine looming and my Austrian, rule-affine mind intact, I was sure not to leave my unit circle for weeks. This was before I talked to more experienced French rebels that had immediately chased and found the loopholes in the restrictive measures. I’m being educated to change my perspective and decipher the many rules imposed upon me.
French rebel training begins with an examination of our deep and hidden assumptions about the functioning of society. In my subconscious mind, for instance, almost every country has a resident registration system. This is a huge database listing the addresses of all permanent residents in countries like Austria and Germany. Police officers can use it to enforce the law and even regular citizens can access specific entries for a small fee.
If France had such a database, it would be hard to break the rules and get away with it when caught. Outside of your one-kilometre circle, there would be no excuse for jogging or hanging out.
As you might have guessed, they don’t have it, which offers many options to meet your friends: You can go grocery shopping and return to your “home address” which is actually your friends’. You can cover your path on Google Maps by circles of radius one. I leave it to you to find out more ways.
The point I want to make here is cultural rather than criminal: My basic assumption that rules are generally obeyed, as I learned in Germany, prevented me from finding the loopholes at first. In contrast to that, my French friends have had many experiences with traffic lights and carnets de correspondance. They know that not everything is to be taken literally, even if the president wants to give us the impression
During my first months in France, this was hard to adjust to. Deciphering the rules is somehow essential in this country in order to prioritize them well and obey only the necessary parts. Interpreting every regulation in a literal way will unnecessarily stress you out and drain your energy. Biking through Paris will take twice as long, and you will never complete any administrative procedure. The overload of rules makes it hard for non-rebels to survive.
To be honest, I’m curious to see where this will lead.
Probably, in the near future, I’ll be a rebel too…