Tale of two cities: How virus lockdown has exposed France's class divide

Fiachra GIBBONS
Writer Leila Slimani's diary of her idyllic rural retreat from the coronavirus lockdown in Paris has infuriated some for its lack of sensitivity to the plight of others

When bestselling French novelist Leila Slimani -- the author of "The Perfect Nanny" -- admitted that she felt "a little like Sleeping Beauty" contemplating the coronavirus lockdown from the comfort of her country home, she hit a very raw nerve.

Class tensions, never very far from the surface despite the fine sentiments of the French national motto "liberty, fraternity and equality", exploded.

Parisians without second homes to flee to excoriated her on social media, with the economist Thomas Porcher, author of "Les Delaisses" (which roughly translates as "Those Left Behind"), calling Slimani "indecent".

With biting irony, journalist Nicolas Quenel recommended poor families read the diary of her bucolic confinement in Le Monde newspaper to "ease the tension of living in 15 square metres (160 square feet)".

Apartments in the French capital are often tiny, with nearly a quarter of the population living in 30 square metres or less.

Celebrated writer Marie Darrieussecq got similar treatment for describing trips to the sea and deer grazing in the garden of her second home.

Fellow novelist Diane Ducret was not impressed.

Stuck in a two-room flat, and unable to see the sky, she said they were typical of a certain caste of France's out-of-touch intellectual elite "for whom the revolution doesn't seem to have happened".

- Rich safe at seaside -

She compared Slimani to the "Marie Antoinette playing at being a farmer" in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, and "just about as in touch with fear and anguish of the people".

The French queen later lost her head to the angry Parisian poor.

In a scathing take-down of Slimani's diary in Marianne magazine, Ducret described how her elderly neighbour recently killed himself by throwing himself from the window of his tiny bedsit because the owner wanted to sell it, condemning him to the street.

The virus has "shown up our inequalities," she said. "When it comes to a certain social class... when our precious liberty is called into question, equality becomes just an ideal," she added.

When France declared its lockdown three weeks ago, an estimated one fifth of the population of the capital escaped to the country and the seaside, sparking a wave of resentment in the provinces.

Many accused "selfish Parigots" -- slang for Parisians -- of spreading the virus.

Indeed Darrieussecq sheepishly wrote about using her second car in the country because "it's not good to drive around" in Paris plates.

Young fashion designer Romain Mittica chose to stay in his bedsit in a poorer corner of northern Paris rather than to travel back to the east of France and risk infecting his parents.

Reaching out his arms he can almost touch the two walls.

"I leave the window open so I don't feel so closed in," he said.

- 'We're going to kill each other' -

But at least he only has to live with himself.

An exasperated grandmother called Kouther told AFP that she was "losing her mind" trying to keep her five grandchildren entertained in a 30-square-metre apartment.

"We are going to kill each other if this goes on any longer," she said as the children ran around a bare square at the foot of a cluster of high-rise blocks.

Playgrounds and parks have been closed since the start of the lockdown, with French people only allowed out for exercise once a day, as long as they don't stray more than one kilometre (around 1,100 yards) from home.

"You cannot keep children locked up like this. It's wrong. They can't play with their friends," Kouther added. "They are fighting from morning to night."

The children's father is a self-employed delivery driver who has had to keep working to keep his contracts. Their mother works in a supermarket, which is also open.

Like Slimani, 63-year-old Kouther was born in Morocco, but the similarities end there.

"The rich don't care -- they wouldn't be rich if they did," she said.

But even as she continued to glory in the bliss of the country, Slimani -- whose book, called "Lullaby" in the UK, is about two children murdered by their nanny -- acknowledged that not everyone was so lucky.

"We are not equal," she wrote. "The days that come will deepen those inequalities with certain cruelty."