In France we’ve lost our joie de vivre

 | Agnès Poirier

The writer Samuel Beckett, based in Paris, talked about “the siege in the room”. He was referring to intense periods of writing, when nothing else mattered. Life in France, in the last few months, has felt exactly like that siege – except the room is the whole country.
Coming on the back of two terrorist attacks, which shook us to the core and installed a new normality in our lives consisting of round-the-clock army patrols on the streets of Paris, the events of the last few weeks, days and nights have been particularly difficult.
It seems that the Euro 2016 championship is bringing to the fore our existential malaise and crystallising our fears. Rocked by weeks of strikes over labour reforms, most people now view with increasing concern, almost dread, the trade unions arm-wrestling with President François Hollande’s government.
Continuous street demonstrations and transport strikes not only put pressure on police forces needed for the football tournament, but also send an alarming signal to visitors from abroad.
As I write, I can hear the continuous wailing of the police and firemen’s sirens rushing to Boulevard du Montparnasse where the latest demonstration against the new labour law is degenerating into yet another confrontation between groups of hard-core anarchists and radical leftists and the riot police.
As I write, on social media I can see teargas, shattered glass on the pavements, rows of Vélib (bicycles for hire) on fire, a couple of people injured in front of Le Dôme – the 1900 brasserie where Lenin, Picasso and Hemingway used to go – and Parisians helping uncomprehending European football fans get away from the main boulevard where water cannon are advancing.
Many people in France worry about their police, who have been on the frontline for almost 18 months, and are overstretched and exhausted. The state of emergency has now been in place for six months and was extended for Euro 2016 to ensure maximum security, but not a day seems to pass without unexpected bursts of violence.
At the weekend, when extreme violence broke out in Marseilles, between Russian ultras, some English fans and Marseille’s own brand of thugs, the British media were quick to criticise French officers for their “inaction” or delayed response. But before having to learn the minutiae of every nation’s special brand of urban violence, they have enough on their plate to deal with.
The mood in the country is heavy and sombre. Citizens are as exhausted and demoralised as their police. Euro 2016’s opening match, when France scored a last-minute winner and goalscorer Dimitri Payet started sobbing, is a timely reminder that, at the moment, the nation is wearing its heart on its sleeve.

French police commander and partner killed in possible Isis-linked attack – video

I could also mention the recent floods, which devastated many French towns a fortnight ago, and will cost the country hundreds of millions of euros. In fact, when the order was given to take some of Le Louvre’s arts to a place of safety away from the ever swelling Seine, many Parisians thought back to 1939 – when the whole public collection was smuggled out of the capital, beyond the reach of the invading Nazis. This is a strange comparison, but one that says a lot about the current atmosphere.
France, a nation used to laughter and lightness, is acquainting itself with a new feeling of weariness. Yesterday morning we woke up to the news that a French police commander had been knifed to death and his wife’s throat slit in front of their three-year-old son at their home. The attacker, a 25-year-old compatriot, was reportedly acting for Islamic State and had been convicted three years earlier of plotting terrorist acts. It was the first time in the country that an off-duty policeman had been targeted and murdered in his own home.
We later heard the now familiar voice of the French public prosecutor, François Molins, who has now become part of an extended bereaved family called France. After each terrorist act, he appears to tell us the facts and keep the nation informed of the investigation. Always dignified in his dark grey suits, and with an impeccable delivery, he seems to be telling the country that the road back to insouciance is going to be very long, and things might get worse before they get better.
So we all keep our fingers crossed that Russia loses as soon as possible, that English fans behave themselves, that French strikes are put on hold – at least until the end of Euro 2016 – and that this tournament goes without a glitch, brings us some respite, and perhaps even some joy. And if our friends in Britain voted to remain with us, this would perhaps lift our spirits a little more.



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