Valley of the Arbas. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sheldon Heitner wrote this piece April 10. Strict confinement in France currently extends through May 13.


We are submerged here.

Submerged by incertitude, by mountains of non-stop information and doubt.

Confronted, by the necessity of letting time pass us by, watching it helplessly from our confinement as it continues in its undisturbed flow…

You would think, at least on the surface, that this pandemic affects us all the same way – wherever we are – and I think it does, but in more nefarious ways than I would have imagined, creating a uniformity of thought that replaces what was once specific and unique; a flattening of existence that was once rich and multi-layered.

What I mean is simple.

What I remember from yesterday, is in question now.

And all the old stories of France seem like a dream, a fantasy of a country that no longer, or never did exist.

Montgaillard de Salies-Paradis in March of 2020. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

If I was writing a letter to you a decade ago, describing rural life, I would have spoken gently of the differences that define the specific and very local qualities of living in a place.

The way people go about their business, the way they greet each other, shop or eat…or even the way they consider the passage of time; all the things in our everyday experience that are “not the same” from one place to another.

Funeral in April of 2020 with social distancing. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

But today that is changing, and the last few years of social unrest here – and especially now during the confinement – has reduced us to something other than what we were, producing a population marked by groups of wishful “rememberers”, wanting to regain some idea of past glories, or others (and sometimes they’re the same), groups of what the French call complotiste, people who see hidden plots in everything (from vaccines to viruses): Would this sound familiar to an American?

People are clinging to ideas of a past that can be easily encapsulated in sound bites and quick phrases.

In France, many turn to the period known as “Les Trente Glorieuses”,  the 30 years following World War II when everyone worked and the economy was constantly growing, the highways were being built and opportunities were expanding for all – except, when you actually look closely at those years, it might not have been quite so easy or so glorious as it first appears; a period of time that witnessed decolonization or the rumblings that resulted in the protests of May ’68.

Today, these events (or the players in them) have taken on another role in the popular imagination. When they are dragged out for the public, they become nothing more than objects to celebrate in books and documentaries or museum.

Is there some necessity built into us as human beings that demands a simplistic notion of a “National Character”?

Shepherdess and her sheep. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

Do we, as individuals and participants in the communities and countries in which we live, have some need for a self-perception that reduces everything to an easily generalized characterization – an idea of ourselves which can be easily manipulated by our politicians, our employers, our religions? 

In France, this “idea” of a national character is often defined by wine and food or a desire to protest for the sake of protest, much like in Germany you often hear of a country that is productive, industrious, obedient, and organized. 

Main street of St. Gaudens, now empty. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

Like all generalizations, this is not completely true, and despite coming out of two years of political turmoil, for the moment the response in France to the Covid-19 crisis is disciplined and very organized – a Cartesian nation facing the health and societal crisis in a way that is perhaps not perfect, but exemplary in its transparence.

The medical response is run by health professionals, epidemiologists and doctors, who provide the daily briefings (not the politicians).

Hospitals and clinics – both private and public – are working together across the country.

Healthcare workers are answering a national call to go where they are most needed and individuals with medical training are returning to work – including several politicians.

The television is filled with “heartwarming” stories (where weeks ago we would have been treated to scandals) of support for the healthcare workers nationwide, including sports figures who have volunteered to clean hospitals in which you might find Michelin star cooks who took over the hospital kitchen to prepare food for the healthcare workers.

To further avoid contact, but ensure proper medical care, doctors have been authorized to make online video consultations, which are fully reimbursed by the social security system.

The TGVs (the high-speed national trains that run at 180 mph) have been transformed into high-speed intensive care ambulances, bringing intensive care patients from areas in France overwhelmed by the virus to others, where the hospitals are less challenged.

Patients are also being transferred by military planes, ambulances, and taxis… And other European countries, less badly hit, are helping, with Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Luxembourg taking in ICU patients from France.

More importantly, in all of this, there is no overt talk of money – this is unquestioningly covered by our national health program…for everyone.

In addition, there appears to be an honest and constructive effort to deal with the penury of supplies, personal funds, or the limitation on our social lives; a sense that the government, local and national, is working together on this.

Laws have been enacted so that landlords cannot evict their renters during the crisis; that electric and gas cannot be turned off.

Unemployment insurance has been facilitated, local Post Offices are open to cash checks for anyone who doesn’t have a bank account or credit card, and small businesses are being proactively approached to see what help they need.

An agricultural crisis, caused by the lack of migrant laborers (who are not allowed to travel across national borders, as no one is allowed to cross them) appears to have been diverted by a government call for furloughed workers to join the farms and help pick the produce (which as of today claims to account for 200,000 posts nationwide).

Here in rural areas, we are seeing a re-organization of the supply chain as local producers band together to provide places where one can order and pick-up fresh produce (and this being France, locally produced wine as well…but we can speak about that at some future moment).

Field in Montgaillard de Salies. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

In this area, the availability and location of these outlets has been, in part, made possible by websites set up by the regional Occitanie government to put producers and public together during these exceptional weeks – but it holds promise and will probably continue after. 

Yes, people are giving of themselves and coming together but, excuse my callousness, for how long?

The next few weeks hold the key to the future: How we will leave confinement and what we are to become as a society and how, if possible, we can redefine ourselves as a nation and as individuals.

But these weeks carry with them the incertitude that we have been living under these last years as well.

The end of this confinement, if there is one, needs to be regulated, but without faith in government, without faith in those who need to direct what is happening, it will be difficult, if not near impossible, to prevent another virus outbreak – or prevent one element or another to resort to very non-democratic means to catch the peoples’ attention.

Abandoned building in St Gaudens. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

Will this government, which is so profoundly unpopular, no matter what they do or say, be able to manage the return from the pandemic?

Or will we be submerged by the anger, the dissent without expression, the years of failed and failing education that results in a political discourse that refuses dialogue and lacks compassion?

The two years of political turmoil mentioned earlier are starting to seep out again, even as the crisis is still with us.

A short history.

The last months, leading up to the pandemic, witnessed the longest strike in French railways history inspired by the government’s proposed overhaul of the retirement system (trying to unify retirement across all professions) – and from there (against the backdrop of an ongoing public hospital strike as doctors, nurses and health professionals protested funding cuts and degradation of services) we entered the Covid-19 era.

Long before this, however, protests had gripped France.

The turmoil really began here in rural areas, with massive agricultural demonstrations and – when the government lowered the speed limit from 55 to 50 mph – widespread protests which expanded after an increase in gasoline taxes.

It was from these protests that the Gilets Jaune (Yellow Vests – ed.) movement emerged, further paralyzing much of the center cities (and some areas in the country) for months.

The roots of this are also historic – the countryside feels betrayed by the city.

Betrayed by the central government in Paris.

Exposed to what they perceive as unfair globalization, higher taxes, diminishing services.

A closed car dealership in St. Gaudens. (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

Betrayed by an educated elite who are perceived as understanding little of the world outside the very restricted circles in which they live – and govern.

The administration of this country, and in many instances even its big corporations, are run by graduates of the elite administration school called ENA, the École Nationale d’Administration. These graduates represent all parts of the political spectrum, but they have their education in common: a place where they are taught how to think, how to speak…how to govern: education as an exclusive club. 

This can almost be seen as a protest of classes: of people who have easy access to the future against others who are lost, victims of a system they feel has betrayed and forgotten them and clinging to memories of a past, whatever that past might be.

This is one critical part of the crisis that permeates France –a crisis of values and more importantly, of self-valuation.  

At the very least, there is a feeling of distrust and fear that permeates the society – and which adds to this feeling of incertitude.

Into this incertitude entered the cadence of the last weeks, something which I am sure is eerily familiar wherever you are: The slow flow of the contagion as it passed through the world.

Salies du Salat (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

The disbelief as we held it couldn’t happen here as we went about our lives at dinners with friends, or trips to Paris, but in all our reveries, in all our discussions, that incertitude was creeping over us and growing, incertitude that started to fill the interstices of our day-to-day lives until, all at once, the impossible was upon us, like the bombing of Iraq or the election of Donald Trump.

Drowning in incertitude, living in it.

The other evening, we were speaking to the young couple who run the local restaurant in the next village over.

We weren’t in the restaurant, of course, but by video conference, and as we spoke – the closed kitchen of the restaurant, the empty dining room as a backdrop – they said that they didn’t know if it would ever go back to the way it was before.

If we would be going out again.

If these small rural businesses would survive.

What form would a return, any return, to “normalcy” take?

No one is quite sure – that will be the subject of many debates and talking heads – but for the moment we don’t seem to be there yet, not here in the Pyrenees at least.

In the past, there were stories I would tell you about the differences that mark the French countryside from the American one. 

Irrigation canal in Touille (copyright Sheldon Heitner 2020)

Today, the fear of an unknown future is omnipresent, here as it is in the United States, and the globalization some hailed or rejected has offered us all a bitter gift – a uniformity of apprehension and certainty of the universal nature of vulnerability and mortality.

What’s next?

Itinerant by nature or by accident, Sheldon Heitner found himself in Europe – and specifically France – where he has been living since the mid-1980s.

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