Letters to Paris: ‘Mandate the Mask’

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By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // With a new name comes a new topic, today Xander Brett shares his thoughts on Swedish v French approach to Covid-19 and the boycott of French products in the Middle East.

8 November 2020

“Macron needs a mental check,” said President Erdoğan of Turkey two weeks ago. He was referring, of course, to President Macron’s ‘war on terror’. Such wars are frequently declared after attacks, and they are usually followed up with meaningful action.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush announced a ‘war on terror’ that culminated in his successor’s mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. After the Bataclan attacks, military action was launched against the Islamic State in Syria.

What differentiates this war is that it has been interpreted more as a war on Islam itself, than on the terror of its extremists. At the end of October, Macron announced that he wanted to ‘reform’ Islam. He was soon met with approval from across the nation, including his former presidential rival Marine Le Pen.

In the west his words went unreported. We’re pre-occupied with a double-bill of coronavirus and the American election. But the residents of Turkey were urged to boycott French products.

Shut down by a global pandemic, the French are dealing with almost daily attacks and a diplomatic storm. It’s an unhappy spiral I’m glad to have left behind. I, indeed, was one of the last to be ‘airlifted’ from Paris last week, departing its empty streets and re-emerging lockdown spirit. Given a choice of lockdowns, some of my British friends stayed. With just three days under restrictions, I had little time to discover France’s lockdown culture… something each country has now perfected to an artform.

Rue de Rivoli during lockdown | Epigram / Xander Brett

France never had a ‘Clap for Carers’, nor the Joe Wicks routines or BBC Singalong. Each evening, however, musicians called residents to their windows. In shops, customers wished each other ‘bonne courage’. The French seem keen to meet exercise targets. Perhaps it was just more obvious, but I’ve never seen so many joggers and runners along the banks of the Seine.


I’m now back in England, writing this letter from my desk at home. I didn’t return here directly, however. After departing Paris on Tuesday, I headed north to Sweden, flying through the Netherlands and Denmark. In Sweden, there remains not a mask in sight: not on trains, not in airports, not inside or out. Parties continue, restaurants are full.

Having arrived at Heathrow from Stockholm, I’m not obliged to quarantine… though that makes little difference during a lockdown. The media can speculate but the statistics deliver. The Swedes’ determination is admirable. No mask wearing is something the Swedish government sticks to with science, despite their neighbours. I was staying with a friend, and both her parents are doctors. Swedes are clear that masks don’t work unless changed every ten minutes.

Xander's journey back to England | Epigram / Xander Brett

Much better, they say, is to keep a distance and wash your hands. While in France there was little distancing, masks were worn for days on end. It was as if the drinks, meetings and metro rides could continue, safe in the knowledge that a protective covering would eliminate danger.


Watching events across the Channel, this is my first Letter to Paris. So, what can I say to address the French? Well, at the moment, the same I say to Great Britain: “keep fighting”. We didn’t follow the slow and steady path of Sweden, and confinements are the only way we can cut this second wave. I urge France to pull together, to embrace Britain’s lockdown spirit… try banana bread and Zoom calls.

Because, make no mistake, this is our generation’s Second World War. Democracy may not be at threat, but coronavirus is a deadly enemy. And this time we’ve all been invaded.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett


Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris' here.

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