By the end of 2020, France will have spent around one-third of the year under coronavirus lockdown (also known as confinement in French). The most recent one was enacted as a response to what is known nationally as the second wave of the pandemic and began this October 28th. It was initially set to last until at least December 1st but has since been extended until the 15th of that month.
Like the first lockdown, which had lasted from March 17th to May 11th of this year, non-essential businesses such as bars and restaurants have closed, social gatherings have been banned, and people in the country are required to fill out a form every time they leave their homes to justify their outside activities. The ones allowed include, in Macron’s own words, “[leaving the house to work], for a medical appointment, to provide assistance to a relative, to shop for essential goods or to go for a walk near [one’s] house.” Face masks are still mandatory to wear everywhere outside one’s home, and public services remain open. The government is currently undertaking a déconfinement process, whereby restrictions will progressively ease up in the coming weeks.
Restrictions during this second lockdown have overall been looser than the first. For example, visiting relatives in care homes is permitted, and professional sports are allowed to carry on behind closed doors, both of which were forbidden in the first lockdown. However, the main difference between the two lockdowns is that schools throughout the country are staying open this time around. Universities, on the other hand, are closed and have altered almost all teaching to online classes. I spoke to different university students throughout France who have lived through both lockdowns to ask about their experiences and impressions of the ongoing one. Here is what their lives currently look like.
First confinement: a new experience
Back in spring, the idea of confinement was a brand new notion that aspired much perplexity to most students who had never yet experienced it. Some like Louise, a 20-year-old student at the Strate School of Design in Paris did feel some excitement: “We were going to experience something completely new: a worldwide crisis!”
In face of uncertainty, others saw the lockdown as an added weight to their already-present stress. For instance, Mylène who is 18 and studying Art History and Archeology at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, felt she had just started to understand parts of her childhood trauma when she found herself “[suddenly trapped] in [her] own room”. Although she did try to look for ways to “stay positive and see this lockdown as a way to change [her] view of things” such as“finding new ways of working, reading more, [and being closer to her] family”, Mylène found it difficult to miss out on her last moments of high school and be separated from her friends.
While several individuals did not mind the first lockdown as much, like Arnaud, a 19-year-old International Business and Law student at IESEG / Université Catholique de Lille who shrugged it off as simply a “great experience” that “lasted too long”, staying confined required many others to develop coping mechanisms whenever maintaining a positive mindset became too difficult. Gabrielle, a 20-year-old Humanities student at the Université de Lille says she had even “started a few weird rituals to actually feel like time was passing by”.
Staying focused on schoolwork in the midst of a global pandemic was also a new challenge. Pauline, a 19-year-old student at the Paris School of Luxury says that keeping up with her grades involved her “spending the whole day behind a screen and concentrating twice as much”, and Arnaud admits that he had “stopped working as hard as [he] used to” because of how hard he found it to stay concentrated.
Looking back, most students deem the first lockdown to have had a positive impact on the French population’s health and safety, although it has since raised a few concerns; Louise feels the government did not do enough to address the rise of unemployment the lockdown provoked, and Gabrielle sees its economic consequences as “non-negligible”. Mylène wonders in retrospect: “On one hand, [the lockdown seems to have been effective] because the number of contaminations has decreased according to some specialists. But, on the other hand, if we are at this stage of new sanitary measures, it must also mean that it had not been enough…”
Surviving a second lockdown
It comes as no surprise that forced isolation that lasts for longer periods of time has the potential to negatively impact one’s mental health. Over the last few months, there have been increasingly worrying signs of COVID-19’s correlation with an increase in mental health problems (such as depression) among the French population. Opinions on whether the first lockdown helped the students prepare better for the second one are overall mixed. Although Mylène believes that the first confinement helped her “train for the second one” and allowed her to “discover new learning methods”, the current lockdown came to her as a factor that makes her feel even more lost than she already did before in her studies. Louise also shares her worries about the potential widespread anger and depression this lockdown will have caused by the time it ends. Arnaud on the other hand feels less afraid: “Now, I know what [a lockdown] is. Furthermore, the first lockdown was stricter.”
Each student keeps their head above water with a self-regulated routine which always includes some form of socializing. Luckily for students like Pierre, Arnaud, and Pauline, who live in a student hostel, that aspect doesn’t represent an extra effort and has helped them maintain a sense of normalcy. As Arnaud says, “it doesn’t feel like a lockdown [because he sees] other students every day.” Others stay grateful for the limited range of social life they get from their close ones, like Louise whose boyfriend joined her for this second lockdown, Gabrielle who regularly goes on walks and buys snacks with her roommates, and Mylène who shares nice moments with her mother.
Many feel very skeptical of the current lockdown’s efficacy. Pierre, a 23-year-old student at the Montpellier Business School feels that “people don’t respect this lockdown”. Gabrielle says: “[This lockdown’s] measures seem — pardon my french — half-assed to me, and I’m not sure [whether they’re] worth losing our freedom [over] if it doesn’t even make a difference”. She adds: “My lockdown roommates and I were talking about this yesterday and they thought maybe it was a prank and there isn’t actually another lockdown because there’s just so many people in the streets.” Louise finds it desolating for schools to remain open while universities stay closed: “Why are we the ones being punished, we also need an education!”
Attending university through a screen
What Louise means by “punished” alludes to the almost-exclusively-online classes that have been imposed on university students throughout France. Different universities and professors have had to adapt their curricula to the best of their abilities onto an online format. Each party is learning to adjust as they go, and results differ case-by-case:
Pauline: ”My school has adapted very well. I have the exact same lessons that I would have had without the lockdown. I take my lessons on Teams. We have more projects so that we don’t have to spend our lives behind screens. My school also tries to give us more breaks between classes. They even organize apéritif meetings to stay together and know how everyone is doing.”
Louise: “We are having online courses, on Blackboard. It is working pretty well, [is] easy to use, and [is] quite similar to Messenger. We do have one class that is in person, our 3D class. Quite happy about that, [for] it is hard to learn how to use [a new software] virtually. On a negative note, I need to take a train from Le Mans to Paris to be able to attend this class. Not the most convenient for me. […] I wish they would think more about our mental health. They ask us to be close to the school (so, in Paris), but for some of us, we live in a 9 square meter room in a student residence. Quite small, right? Personally, I refuse to do the lockdown in my small room! It is inhumane and just depressing.”
Gabrielle: “The University of Lille is pretty bad at adapting to the situation. They’re giving us more work than ever before because they think we now have all the time in the world. Some of my professors are pretty much clueless when it comes to technology and there isn’t enough room for everyone in the Zoom classes they created. It’s basically the Hunger Games… But a lot worse because we don’t get eternal glory if we stay alive, just a degree, and no job to go with it.”
Predicting the outcomes
Looking ahead, feelings are conflicted as for this second confinement‘s outcomes. Although the looser regulations in this lockdown have aimed to protect the country’s economy from further fragilizing, worries persist. When asked about their predicted results of this lockdown, the status of France’s economy was a pertinent issue that half of the interviewees brought up. Gabrielle, for instance, says that the economy will “surely [be killed]”, and Pauline affirms that “[French people] all know that [the economic situation] will be complicated and take longer to recover“. In a similarly pessimistic outlook, Arnaud does not believe in the lockdown’s efficiency, and Pierre is already predicting a third one to come.
There is, however, some anticipation regarding the lockdown’s potential to alleviate the burden of medical workers. Mylène hopes it will “help [relieve] the care staff and that people will become aware of the importance of respecting barrier gestures to protect each of [their] loved ones”, and Gabrielle says that the idea that she can save lives by “being a law-abiding citizen” makes the current restrictions worth it for her.
Finally, some students expressed hope for togetherness: Pauline wishes for the end of the lockdown to “create solidarity and mutual aid between everyone” and Louise envisions it to aspire happiness and for the French to “be stronger and even more united!”