I want to begin this post by expressing my gratitude to everyone: the comments on How To Manage The Media, one of our first slightly ‘political’ posts, were informative, lively, and civilized. I think we’re off to a great start as we cover some new ground with intelligence, elegance, and mutual respect.
(And a special Thank You to Jane, who sent me a lovely, handmade bookmark, which went immediately into service. It is beautiful and much appreciated.)
We’ll be wading into these public policy waters more frequently going forward, but we’re going to go slowly and still keep the Old Money philosophy at the forefront thematically.
And, of course, We’ll always have Paris, as Humphrey Bogart so eloquently put it. These past few weeks had found citizens of the city wagering and guess-stimating when and if France would enter a third lockdown. Many, including myself, were certain that this past week would have found us back in ‘le confinement’.
But the government weighed more nuanced factors apparently. Yes, the infection rate was up (25,000 cases per day as best I recall), as was the number of COVID patients in intensive care units. (ICU’s are now hovering at 65% capacity, up 10% in the past seven days.) Both of these factors are cause for alarm at best and concern at least, even if they aren’t the 50,000 cases per day and 95% ICU capacity that we experienced last spring.
Mitigating factors now include the (slow) introduction of the vaccine, a 6pm to 6am curfew already in place, cafes, restaurants, and museums already closed, mandatory and almost universal wearing of masks, and the numbing battle fatigue felt by almost everyone in France during the past year. Cynically, I would add that I think President Macron is keeping an eye on his approval numbers. He’s also monitoring rumblings from far right candidate Marie LaPen who’s always ready to criticize how things are being handled.
I also think that the business sector needed a boost, and the ‘sales’ that happen each year at this time have given retail merchants and consumers alike much needed relief: boutique owners get to make some money and consumers get to feel good spending it.
Finally, no one is sure just how much more discipline, sacrifice, and monotony the French people are willing to endure. A third lockdown might be inevitable (I think it is) but to the government, it’s not essential right now, and the longer people can conduct business, circulate, and socialize, however little, the better off the country will be. Anti-lockdown protests have already turned violent in other European countries, and France is eager to avoid the same.
The economic damage is already done. Recovery is a distant, vague concept. Living here, I can attest to the thousands of businesses that have closed and to the tsunami of personal bankruptcies. (A friend is a Parisian accountant who handles them, and he’s working 7 days a week.) As I walk the streets, I pass stretches of empty retail and office space in the city’s affluent districts. Probably one out of three are empty, boarded up and/or available to lease.
With all this, you’ve got a very reasonable case to at least postpone draconian measures for another week or two. Scientists here in France have already called for another lockdown to take place immediately, predicting a much worse battle if the proverbial can is kicked down the road.
I fear they are correct, but I also understand the dilemma faced by public officials: a lockdown may bring down infection rates, but for how long? It will certainly bludgeon the economy. And we haven’t even considered the variants that are estimated to be the dominant strain in France by March, a few short weeks from now.
There are a lot of moving parts, and few good options. My wife and I try to stay informed, practice strict health protocols, and remain patient. We also believe that people will be strong, pull together, and rise to meet this challenge.
Looking at this moment in time, I think not having a lot of control over this situation has made me analytical, circumspect, and philosophical. These impulses may have driven me to reread Sarah Bakewell’s “How To Live“, a biography and treatise of sorts revolving around the life of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne was famously reserved in judgment, constantly seeing two and even three sides to every issue, uncertain of how much he (or anyone) really knew or understood about life. “All that I know is that I know nothing,” he famously quipped. “And I’m not even sure about that.”
As wishy-washy as he might testify to being, Montaigne was also, on occasion, one tough, calculating Old Money cookie. Bakewell recounts how he was once kidnapped for ransom. (A tempting target, as he was a wealthy landowner from a prominent family.) When the kidnappers told him the amount they wanted in exchange for his safe return, he scoffed at them: the amount was too high. They’d never get it, and they’d be better off asking for a lesser amount and doing the deal that was possible. Or they could just kill him and go on their merry way. They listened, the ransom for a lesser amount was paid, and he was freed.
The book also recalls the time a band of murderous mercenaries showed up at Montaigne’s front door, unannounced and without any good intentions. Instead of trying to fight them or negotiate with them, the philosopher boldly threw open the doors of his chateau and welcomed all of them in. A banquet was served and a party was thrown.
Montaigne and the leader of the mercenaries talked, laughed, and bantered the night away. Impressed by his host’s bravery and hospitality, the mercenaries left the next day without raping, pillaging or demanding anything from the household.
One of my neighbors here in Paris called Montaigne a hypocrite, citing his self-proclaimed laziness and then ticking off his accomplishments as a writer, diplomat, politician, and property owner. Hardly the track record of a someone habitually putting their butt down and their feet up at the family chateau, glass of wine in hand, she argued.
I prefer to assess and appreciate Montaigne as a mixed bag of the completely human: contradictory, vulnerable, observant, and somewhat idealistic in a very messy world. He itemized his shortcomings exhaustively. He considered and weighed history carefully.
His awareness of both gave him a distinct advantage: he had seen others succeed and fail, and he knew his faults and could compensate. He was not plagued by illusions about himself or his world. And, if you read his Essays (I suggest the translation by Stanford professor David Frame) I think you’ll find among all the uncertainty and self-doubt, a little optimism woven between the lines.
And that’s what I’m hanging onto now.
Be safe. Bon dimanche.