Around eleven percent of the capital’s residents packed their bags a month ago, moved to live with their families, or in a holiday home in the country. The rush on the small Atlantic islands triggered fear and incomprehension. Today the tensions have subsided, but have not disappeared.
When he thinks back to the evening when French President Macron announced a nationwide curfew, the anger in Bruno Monnier’s voice becomes palpable. “I already guessed what would follow,” says the 47-year-old on the phone. Monnier lives on the Ile de Noirmoutier, an Atlantic island south of Brittany. It has the area of the city of Bern, with 10,000 people living there all year round. However, with the imposition of the lockdown on March 17, the population on the island grew rapidly, as in many other resorts.
In the hours before Emmanuel Macron spoke, when the curfew was no more than a rumor, many people in France’s cities had gotten into the car or taken the train and had gone out into the country. Around 11 percent of Parisians, around 200,000 people, have left the capital. That is the conclusion Statistical Office Insee, which is based on mobile phone location data from the mobile operator Orange. Orange itself estimates that 1.2 million people left the Greater Paris area between March 13 and 20, or 17 percent of the population.
While some inhabitants of the capital joined their families, others were drawn to their holiday homes on the coast: in Normandy, Brittany, the Pays de la Loire or the Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Tensions between the inhabitants of the destinations and the newcomers did not fail to materialize. Especially at the beginning, locals told French media that they were afraid that travelers would increasingly carry the virus into western France. This is less affected than the east and the Ile-de-France region.
Cars with an outside license plate were isolated the tires cut open or scratched the paint. “It happened to me,” says Jean-Pierre Cézard on the phone. The retired doctor says he left Paris before Macron’s speech – when the first rumors of a curfew spread. He has been living in his holiday home in Baden on the Breton coast for a month. When he returned to his car one day after shopping in the town center, “one of the tires was flat”. Cézard is certain that the reason for this was his number plate. “A man stood next to me and told me that he was fed up with people from outside,” says the 75-year-old. “Since then I’ve been leaving my car in the garage.”
The discomfort that some locals made clear went beyond the fear of infection. Small towns, in particular, feared an overload of the health care system with the sudden influx.
“Not the medical resources for so many people”
The urban exodus gave the islands off the Atlantic coast a particular headache. On the Ile de Noirmoutier, the population grew by 50 percent almost overnight. “From 10,000 to 15,000 people,” says Noël Faucher, one of the mayors on the island. Doctors warned of overload should the number of infected people skyrocket. To prevent this, local politicians tried to block the bridge that connects the Ile de Noirmoutier with the mainland. But the state refused the request. “It would have required police presence around the clock, and that would not have been possible,” says Faucher. On March 20, the prefecture of the department banned the rental of vacation rentals on the coast. At this point, the curfew was already in force – and travel to other areas was prohibited.
Cyrille Vartanian describes the behavior of city dwellers as “irresponsible”, “traveling from a region badly affected by the virus to a largely spared area”. Vartanian is one of six general practitioners on the island. “We don’t have the medical resources for so many people here,” he says. There is no hospital, sick people have to be transferred to the mainland for treatment. The Ile de Noirmoutier is experiencing a much stronger population increase every summer: According to Mayor Faucher, around 40,000 people live in the second homes alone. “Without an epidemic, however. And we get support from colleagues, ”Vartanian points out. But now the doctors would be needed elsewhere.
Even if he doesn’t approve of the behavior of the newcomers, he can understand it to a certain extent, the doctor says. “They reacted like in times of war and sought refuge.” Then he adds: “We islanders would probably have acted in their place.”
Mayor Faucher said that there was a lack of understanding among the population that some newcomers had behaved incorrectly, especially at the beginning. “They thought they were on vacation, went on bike tours and walks on the beach.” Since then, many controls have been carried out and campaigns on social networks should raise awareness. “The curfew is now respected.”
An island seals itself off
The Ile d’Yeu, about 40 kilometers south, has implemented more radical measures. Passenger ferries have not been operating between the island and the mainland for a month. Only a ferry brings groceries daily and enables those who have a special permit to cross. 5,000 people live on the island throughout the year, and up to 30,000 in the summer. “If all these people had come, we would not have been able to cope with the situation”, local politician Carole Charuau is convinced. Already on the day before the curfew came into force, the trips to the island were booked out for three days. The city government then set some levers in motion and reached a decision by the prefecture: People without primary residence were no longer allowed to travel.
There is a small hospital on the Ile d’Yeu. “But we have no ventilators, no intensive care unit,” says Charuau. Seriously ill people are evacuated by helicopter. In Covid 19 cases, people could only be transported individually, preparation alone takes two hours. “If the epidemic comes here, people will die before they go to the hospital.” Charuau had to make this clear to some people who insisted on moving to their second home.
“We managed to keep the disease at bay,” she says. There are currently about a dozen people on the Ile d’Yeu who are suspected of having Covid 19 disease in self-quarantine, a few have been flown out. So far, one man has died.
Primary risk after curfew
Also on the Ile de Noirmoutier, the number of infections is limited. The doctor Vartanian speaks of around 80 suspected cases. There are some Parisians among those affected, “but I do not have the impression that they make up the majority of those affected,” he says.
The few cases may have contributed to the fact that tensions between locals and newcomers from the cities have subsided, as Vartanian says. Mayor Faucher says that a few additional people arrived over Easter despite the curfew, but very few. He sees the main risk for his island in the period after the curfew ends, if it is important to prevent a further increase in the number of cases.