9 ways that two years of Covid have changed France

It was a global catastrophe in which millions died while others lived under the most stringent civillian restrictions since World War II. Although most Covid-related restrictions are now lifted, two years of pandemic have undoubtedly left their mark on France - here are some of the things that have changed.

9 ways that two years of Covid have changed France
The cafes have reopened, but France has seen long-term change sparked by the pandemic. Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

France moved online 

Obviously the internet existed in France before the pandemic, many processes could be done online and some pretty useful apps already existed.

But there’s no doubt that the pandemic supercharged France’s digital transformation, to the point where the French contact-tracing and health pass app – TousAntiCovid – was one of the best in Europe.

While Germans presented cardboard vaccine booklets to enter restaurants and Brits waited months for an app that would display their vaccination certificates, TousAntiCovid moved (almost) seamlessly from contact tracing to virtual attestations to an EU-wide digital vaccine pass.

And it wasn’t just the app, lockdowns and office closures moved an increasing number of official processes – from residency cards to driving licences – online, dramatically accelerating the pace of digital switchover.

Likewise government rules exempting ‘click and collect’ services from lockdown rules prompted many French businesses to get serious about their online offering, while the number of shops accepting contactless card payments also saw a sharp increase.

Once introduced, these services are now here to stay. 

Télétravail boomed

Speaking of the digital revolution, many people also began to work online. For some this meant extra services such as télémedicineonline doctors’ appointments – but for most it meant doing their job remotely, usually from home.

Remote working existed pre-pandemic, but a combination of a less online culture and France’s strict labour laws meant that it was a comparative rarity.

Once people began working from home, many found that they liked it and even when it was no longer mandatory many people have continued to work from home, or used a combination of office and remote work.

Once the lockdowns were over, the government decided that remote working rules were a matter for employers, employees and their representatives such as unions. That has meant a more flexible approach with bosses and employees able to adapt télétravail in a way that suited them. 

The city flight

Connected to the online revolution is the sustained movement of people out of cities.

There has been a marked trend of people moving out of cities – either to the suburbs or to the countryside.

While lockdown gave people an appreciation for having more space, especially outdoor space, remote working meant that moving a little further away from the office suddenly became feasible for many.

The upshot is that property prices in the cities have dropped and even Paris prices have become fractionally less insane, so now is a good time to move or to invest.

Whether this will be a long-term trend remains to be seen

Transport strikes 

A favourite tactic of French unions when in dispute with the government has been to call for transport strikes.

Sometimes these are directly related to transport such as a dispute over pay and working conditions, but in other cases they are on broader issues such as pension reform or ‘solidarity strikes’ with other industries – either way they tend to be very disruptive and newsworthy and governments often back down.

But while the 2019/20 transport strikes over pension reform caused widespread chaos, particularly in Paris as employees struggled to get to work, a 2022 Paris transport strike saw most workers shrugging and deciding to work from home that day.

Has the pandemic and télétravail dented the power of French unions? On verra . . .

Big state got even bigger

France was already a country with a big government, where the State was actively involved in most people’s lives but the pandemic took it up a gear.

The French ‘whatever it costs’ package of economic measures to support workers and businesses during the lockdown was widely copied, and has continued for hard-hit sectors such as tourism.

Since the start of the Ukraine war, France has also dedicated economic packages to refugees, Ukrainian artists and also to French people to protect them from increasing living costs.

Gas prices have been capped, two separate €100 grants have been issued to people on low incomes and the government has ordered filling stations to lower fuel prices by 15 cents a litre, with the shortfall made up from public money. 

Some of this can probably be attributed to it being an election year, but the tendency of the French state to get directly involved seems to have been reinforced by the pandemic.

Kissing was scaled back

La bise, the distinctive French double (or treble, or quadruple depending on where you are) cheek kiss was effectively ruled out for a long time by rules on social distancing and hygiene gestures.

While it’s now making a comeback, some people are taking the opportunity to ditch the tradition or at least scale it down.

Even before the pandemic there were plenty of French people, especially younger women, who didn’t appreciate the social pressure to kiss all the time, and many have now taken the opportunity to restrict la bise to only family and close friends.

There’s no hard scientific data on this, but it seems that while kissing is definitely back, it might be less widespread than it was, and can be something that’s saved for your nearest and dearest.

Takeout multiplied

Pre-pandemic, takeaway in France was generally limited to the junkier end of the food chain – pizzas, kebab etc. The concept of ‘gourmet takeout’ was not really a thing.

But during lockdown the government made the decision to exempt takeout sales from the financial support that food and drink businesses received, with the result that many restaurants began offering meals to take away.

Restaurants are now open again, but many have kept in place some kind of takeout option as an added extra. Likewise getting coffee to takeout has become more socially acceptable – although bagging a café table with a coffee remains a popular pastime.

People got on their bikes

A city trend that was already underway – especially in Paris – but cycling has seen a marked uptick since the pandemic, since many commuters remain reluctant to jam themselves into Metro carriages to be coughed over by fellow passengers.

The city of Paris set up coronapistes – temporary extra cycle lanes – many of which later became permanent. Several streets, including the Rue de Rivoli, never went back to allowing cars and are (in our opinion) much the nicer for it.

Another Macron term?

On the face it, confining people to their homes for long periods of time and shutting all bars, restaurants, music venues and basically everywhere fun does not seem like a vote-winner.

Emmanuel Macron went into the pandemic a divisive president whose term of office had been marked by major confrontations including the year-long ‘yellow vest’ protests and a two-month transport strike.

Two years on, and most pundits are predicting that he will win re-election in April.

Clearly many factors are at play here, including the weakness of his opponents and a ‘bounce’ from his handling of the Ukraine war, but even before the invasion of Ukraine Macron was a favourite to win and his handling of the pandemic – particularly the hefty packages of economic support – have played a part.

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OPINION: Macron’s speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron's (unusually brief) speech to the nation and an orgy of blame and speculation, John Lichfield takes a look at how the turbulent months ahead are likely to play out in France.

OPINION: Macron's speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In eight minutes on Wednesday evening, we saw the best of Emmanuel Macron and the worst of Emmanuel Macron. In his TV address to the nation, he was confident; he was solemn; above all he was brief.

He accepted that the hung parliament elected last Sunday reflected “deep divisions” in the country. He said that France  must “learn to govern differently…We must build new compromises…based on dialogue, open-mindedness and respect”.

But he failed to admit any share of responsibility in the impasse which voters have created. He said that he still had a “clear mandate” from his Presidential victory in April. He called for compromise but said that some of his own promises – no new taxes, no increased debt – were untouchable.

Hear more analysis from John and The Local team in our Talking France podcast.

In April, Macron acknowledged that he had won partly through the votes of people who disliked him but feared Marine Le Pen more. He promised to govern with them in mind. He hasn’t.

His alliance drifted through the parliamentary campaign without strongly defending Macron’s presidential programme, let alone coming up with new ideas to appease the voters, of Right or Left, who supported him on April 24th by default.

That is not the only reason for the mess that France is now in. Other factors played a part: voter fatigue; inflation; the perpetual French instinct to demand “change” but resist all changes; a campaign which largely ignored the gathering threats in the world outside.

France now finds itself, by accident, in a world which the present generation of French politicians have never known – a German, Italian, Spanish or Belgian world of coalitions, compromise and shifting alliances.

This was the world – a world of revolving-door governments –  which Charles de Gaulle devised the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic to replace. Some argue that the return of parliamentary power will be A Good Thing.

It will generate more profound political debate and a culture of constructive compromise. I doubt it. The new National Assembly – with nine political groups, including large blocs from the Hard Left and Far Right – will be more bear-pit than Periclean Athens.

There has been a witch-hunt going on in the French media about who is “responsible” for the fact that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leaped from 8 seats to 89 in the new Assembly.

READ ALSO Is there really a ‘voter surge’ to the far-right in France?

The Left, both in France and abroad, has blamed President Macron’s Ensemble! alliance for failing to give clear advice to its supporters last Sunday to vote for the Left in two-way, second round contests with Lepennist candidates. As a result, they say Le Pen won at least 30 seats which might have gone to the Left-Green alliance, Nupes.

They fail to point out – and the French media has only belatedly started to point out – that exactly the same thing happened, only more so, with those Left voters who faced second round races between Macron and Le Pen candidates. Almost 60 percent of the Far Right victories – 53 – came in two-way contests  between the Rassemblement National and Macron’s Ensemble! alliance.

Exit polls vary but all of them suggest that voters of the Left  abstained, or even voted for Le Pen candidates, to “screw Macron” more than Macron voters abstained or voted Le Pen to “screw” the Left.

In effect, the Macron alliance and the Left-Green alliance shot themselves collectively in the feet by abandoning the so-called Republican Front against Le Pen. Each might have won at least 30 extra seats if both had voted for one another. The Macron alliance might even have just scraped a majority – which is presumably what Left-Green voters wanted to prevent.

A similar hue and cry is in progress against the Macron camp for its alleged willingness to work with Le Pen and her deputies in the new parliament. There has been some loose talk by some Macron allies. Most senior Macron lieutenants have ruled out deals or alliances with the Far Right bloc.

But what of Macron himself, who asked Marine Le Pen when they met on Tuesday whether she would contemplate joining a government of national unity? He asked the same of most of the party-leaders he met.

All refused and as Macron said in his eight-minute address, the idea is impractical and unjustified.

Why raise it at all then? Especially with Le Pen?

Partly, I think, because Macron believes that as President of the Republic he cannot pretend that the 89 Far Right deputies do not exist. Partly, I believe that Macron is playing a would-be clever waiting game.

He sees no real prospect of a long-term alliance with the 64 centre-right deputies. He expects in the short term to conduct  urgent business – including a new anti-inflation package  -through ad hoc alliances with the centre-right and moderate Left.

In the longer term, he believes (and maybe hopes) that such cooperation is doomed to fail. He wants to be seen to have given all combinations of parliamentary peace a chance before he “declares war” and calls a new legislative election next year.

Hence last night’s message. What are all the groups in parliament – including the three Macron-supporting ones – prepared to concede to allow the vital business of government to continue?

It might have been smarter politics if Macron had said, more clearly, that he also is ready to make concessions and listen to other people’s ideas.