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How balcony stars all over France spread joy during coronavirus lockdown

In cities all over France, musicians treat their neighbours to nightly balcony performances, to bring moments of comfort and solidarity to those isolated during the coronavirus lockdown.

How balcony stars all over France spread joy during coronavirus lockdown
French opera tenor singer Stephane Senechal performs the song O sole mio from his window in Paris. Photo: AFP

Every evening at 7pm, tenor Stephane Senechal throws open the window of his apartment in Paris's 9th arrondissement and lets fly with an aria.

“When I see the smile that I bring each evening with my song, that gives me great pleasure,” he told AFP.

“All day long, we are told of tragic things, of the dead. When I see smiles, I see hope. It's a little moment of freedom, of escape,” he said.

Senechal said he lives in a neighbourhood where “there are a lot of elderly people” and that it was an 80-year-old neighbour's moment of reflection at the beginning of the lockdown that pushed him to sing at his window.

Stephane Senechal's “moment of escape” from all the tragedies the coronavirus brings is joy to his neighbours. Photo: AFP

Celebrate life

“She told me 'we will feel even more isolated'. I was rehearsing the role of Don Jose in “Carmen” at the time and after this remark I decided to sing at the window,” he said.

Senechal starts by singing the “Marseillaise”. Then he links each nightly recital with arias as varied as “I gave you my heart” from Franz Lehar's operetta “The Land of Smiles”, the 1935 Mexican song “Piensa en mi” – sung by Luz Casal in Pedro Almodovar's High Heels – as well as the song “Caruso”, Edith Piaf's “The Hymn to Love” and an “Ave Maria” dedicated “to all the suffering”.

Senechal also likes to let go with “E Lucevan le stelle” from Puccini's opera Tosca. He considers this especially apt because of its last sentence: “'E non ho amato mai tanto la vita! (I have never loved life so much)' We understand the importance of life. And we can't give up now,” he says.

His balcony recitals appear to have drifted far across the rooftops of the 9th. “A patient with COVID-19 and hospitalised in Bichat (a hospital in the north of Paris) saw one of my videos and said 'keep going'. For me, that makes it all worthwhile.”

Since the start of self-isolation in France, as in Italy and Spain, initiatives like this have flourished. Montreuil, in the eastern suburbs of the capital, has been particularly active, regularly sharing videos of a violinist, a guitarist or a singer on their balconies.

The “BachDesBalcons” online initiative, launched by Classical Revolution France, a movement imported from the United States, encourages musicians to play Bach at their windows.

READ ALSO: How to have a virtual night out in France during lockdown 

 

Symphonic Orchestra violinist Jessy Koch performs on her balcony every day day to support health workers in Mulhouse, one of the towns that the coronavirus struck earliest and hardest. Photo: AFP

Across the nation

“There are dozens of us playing every week from Montpellier to Paris, via Nantes, Strasbourg or Lille,” Sarah Niblack, director of Classical Revolution France, told AFP. “Bach is the greatest of companions, you are never alone with your music.”

An American who has lived in France for several years, Niblack has been based in Prades, in the south-west, since the beginning of confinement, and says she is happy to bring “comfort and a little moment when people come together” in these times of isolation.

“People recognise me now, even when I do my shopping with mask and gloves, I am told in the street 'you are the girl who plays Bach',” said Niblack, a violinist who has played in several national orchestras.

Like many freelance workers she has suffered professionally from the lockdown, having seen six contracts cancelled since the outbreak, but she remains upbeat about the power of music.

“We are not useful in a hospital but we can make a little difference in people's lives. They appreciate that we are thinking of them.”

READ ALSO: Apéro Skype – France's evening lockdown drinks ritual

French cellist Camilo Peralta playing on his balcony in Paris. Photo: AFP

Also in Paris, from his balcony overlooking Boulevard Saint-Michel, in the heart of the bohemian Latin quarter, Camilo Peralta, a cellist with the Ile-de-France National Orchestra, plays Bach suites at noon, much to the pleasure of neighbours and the occasional passer-by.

“We are inevitably caught up in the situation because every time I play, an ambulance drives by,” he said.

In Mulhouse, in the east of the country, one of the areas hardest hit by the epidemic, the violinist Jessy Koch plays every day at 6.30pm on her balcony.

“It is not easy to work alone, without a purpose in mind. And now, I started to have a little audience waiting for the little concert. Life goes on,” she said.

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ENERGY

Cold water, 19C heating and cash bonuses: How France will cut energy use this winter

Lowered heating, speed limits, cash bonuses and lighting cuts - the French government has unveiled its 'energy sobriety' plan to cut France's energy use by 10 percent and avoid blackouts this winter.

Cold water, 19C heating and cash bonuses: How France will cut energy use this winter

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne unveiled the long-awaited plan on Thursday, outlining the cuts that will allow France to make it through the winter without Russian gas.

The plan for sobriété enérgetique (energy sobriety) will also become part of France’s longer-term commitment to reducing its energy use by 30 percent by 2030, in order to combat climate change.

The plan is divided into three sections – measures for government offices and public buildings which are compulsory, measures for businesses which are voluntary but which businesses are expected to sign up to on a sector basis and measures that households and private individuals can take, which are entirely voluntary.

Here are the main measures; 

Government

Government officials and politicians are expected to “be exemplary”, which is why you’re likely to see a lot more politicians modelling knitwear this winter, to show how they have turned down their office heating.

Among the measures for government offices are;

Heating – government offices will not be heated to above 19C, lowered to 18C on days when the EcoWatt app (which shows the risk of energy shortages) is on a ‘red’ day – find out how EcoWatt works HERE. The heating will be turned down at night.

Dress code – dress codes are relaxed for public sector employees to allow them to dress warmly for work. 

Remote working – working from home – télétravail – became a fixture during the pandemic and looks like it might be coming back if you work for the government. Government departments will encourage home-working with an increase in the remote-working allowance for public servants. 

Travel – government agents who need to travel for work should use public transport rather than the car. If this is not possible, they should not exceed 110km/h when driving on the autoroute, in order to save around 20 percent of fuel (emergency workers are exempt from this requirement). These tactics are encouraged – but not compulsory – for private employees and individuals. 

Turn off hot water – office managers are asked to turn off hot water supplies, except when it is essential, such as for showers. Employees will therefore need to wash their hands in cold water, and boil a kettle if they want a tea or coffee. 

Building fund – funds will be available to make buildings more energy efficient.

Public spaces

Local authorities are also included in the plan, for both their own offices and for the public buildings that they manage, such as swimming pools and leisure centres. Buildings such as hospitals, nursing homes or anywhere that houses vulnerable people are exempt from these measures. 

Pools and gyms – gyms must lower their standard temperatures by 2C, while the water in swimming pools will be 1C colder. 

Lighting – lighting including street lights, lighting of public spaces and illuminating buildings should be reduced by turning off lights earlier, reducing light intensity and switching to LED lights. Many local authorities had already announced cuts to lighting on public buildings, including the city of Paris where the lights on the Eiffel Tower will be turned off one hour earlier.

Sports stadiums – sports clubs – both professional and amateur – are asked to reduce the time that pitches are floodlit and stadiums lit up before and after matches by 50 percent for daytime matches and 30 percent for evening games. 

Ski resorts – ski resorts will slow the speed of chair lifts in order to save energy but the lifts themselves as well as other ski infrastructure will still be running.

Offices – local and national government are asked to save office heating by grouping as many offices as possible into a single building. 

Businesses

Businesses are asked to sign up to energy commitments on a voluntary basis. The government is creating a brand called Les entreprises s’engagent (Companies that are committed) that companies who sign up to and implement measures will be awarded. Many businesses have already begun to make some of the outlined changes. 

Lower office heating – Offices should not be heated to more than 19C and the temperature should be dropped to 16C at night. If the office is to be closed for three days or more, heating should be lowered to 8C while staff are away. Companies are also asked to move by up to 15 days the switch-on and switch-off dates in autumn and spring for heating, although this will depend on the weather. 

Hotels, bars and restaurants – these and other businesses that welcome the public will also be asked to sign up for the 19C maximum for heating, while retail stores will be expected to go for a maximum of 17C.

Lighting – companies should turn off interior lighting as soon as an office, store or other workplace is closed. Exterior lighting should be reduced, including for advertising, and should be turned off by 1am at the latest. 

Travel – businesses should reduce unnecessary travel by employees and use public transport wherever possible for employees who do have to travel.

Households

These measures are advisory only, but will be accompanied by a publicity campaign – named Chaque geste compte (every action counts) encouraging individuals to do their bit and help to reduce their energy use.

Temperature – lowering the temperature in your home by just 1C can save around seven percent of your energy use. It is recommended to have the living spaces no warmer than 19C, with bedrooms at 17C. This is voluntary, and vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with a disability may need to have the heating at a higher setting.

Appliances – a range of energy-saving tips are suggested, from turning off lights in rooms that are not used to not leaving appliances on standby and unplugging appliances if you are going away. 

Carpooling – in order to encourage car-sharing, there will be bonuses for people who sign up to car-share schemes. 

Cash bonuses – households that manage to reduce their consumption this winter will be in line for a bonus sobriété (sobriety bonus) from their gas or electricity company. Several companies have already announced bonuses of up to €120 for households that make significant cuts.

Heat pumps – homeowners will be able to get grants of up to €9,000 to switch a gas boiler to a heat pump, through the existing Ma PrimeRenov scheme.

Energy forecast – TV channels will start to broadcast the ‘energy forecast’ in a similar way to the weather forecast, showing how high the risk of energy shortages are in the days ahead. 

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