Parisian cafes remained open throughout virtually every historic challenge that has come their way: They didn’t go dark during the Nazi occupation in World War II or even after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, which targeted precisely the joie de vivre they represent. At the time, it became an act of defiance to keep having your coffee en terrasse: This was Paris as the “moveable feast” of Ernest Hemingway’s imagination, where the cafe is a place to “be alone […] and be together.” Parisians have never surrendered that stronghold.
But then came the coronavirus, an invisible enemy that’s strengthened by precisely the kind of communal solidarity that has defeated the existential threats of the past. On Saturday, France’s exasperated prime minister, Édouard Philippe, told the French public that all nonessential businesses, including cafes, would be shut at midnight until further notice. Social distancing is now the unofficial law of the land, and Sunday felt less like a new day and more like a new era.
That was the case all across Europe, where borders continued to close in a region that has long prided itself on transcending them. On Sunday, Germany announced it was imposing temporary controls on its borders with France, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg starting Monday. Vatican City likewise announced it was canceling Holy Week services this year, an annual event that draws thousands of visitors from around the globe. This is — and will remain — the new normal in Europe in the age of the coronavirus.
Paris was not entirely dark. Somewhat surprisingly, the first round of France’s 2020 municipal elections was still held — a vote that President Emmanuel Macron refused to cancel despite shutting down all nonessential commerce mere hours before polls opened.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the decision struck many as confusing, but was shrouded in political calculation. Macron’s right-wing opponents, including Marine Le Pen, had said canceling the municipal elections — in which France will chose mayors for nearly 35,000 town halls across the country, including Paris — would be tantamount to a “coup d’etat.”
But then the government announced the closure of nonessential shops and cafes late Saturday, and politicians who had argued for the democratic imperative of maintaining the elections started attacking the government for negligence. Some exhorted supporters to protest the vote altogether.
As Macron cast his own ballot in his home district of Le Touquet on Saturday, he said voting would not be dangerous if people followed the proper protocols — keeping a meter (roughly three feet) away from others and washing their hands before and after.
“We’ll continue to go out and do our errands,” Macron said, “so it’s legitimate to be able to go out and vote.”
Voters across the country reported the conditions in their polling places on social media. Many, mostly in central Paris, said things were working as the government had planned. But outside the capital, some reported apparent problems, especially in leaving poll workers, many of whom were in at-risk age groups, open to exposure.
In any case, most voters were avoiding polls. At 5 p.m., the turnout rate stood at 38.77 percent, a 16-point decline from the municipal elections of 2014.
Avoiding the polls did not necessarily mean staying home.
Sunday was a perfect spring day, the kind that heralds the end of the gloomy gray skies that descend on Paris for most of autumn and winter and the beginning of sunshine. If cafes were closed, people still flocked to the parks. They played football with their children and sat by the Seine, drinking from bottles among friends.
Hemingway’s old house, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, right in the heart of the Latin Quarter, normally bustles with students, tourists and passerby.
Two doors down is the Place de la Contrescarpe, a fixture of his memoir “A Moveable Feast,” the book Parisians bought in droves after the November 2015 attacks, and which became a kind of battle cry at the time.
On Sunday, the Place de la Contrescarpe was quiet. The moveable feast had moved somewhere else. And in all likelihood it won’t be back for quite some time.