(p. A11) PARIS — Three French lockdowns, and counting, over the past 13 months have been many things, among them a rare opportunity for the formidable national bureaucracy of about 5.6 million public servants to display their gift for the complication of lives.
With the announcement of the third Paris lockdown last month to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, an apotheosis of the absurd was reached.
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How to get your head around hairdressers, vendors of electronic cigarettes, video game outlets and chocolatiers being deemed essential stores, and so allowed to open, but shoe shops, beauty salons, clothing boutiques and department stores being forced to close?
Familiarity with the labyrinthine thought processes of the French functionary was clearly needed. France, as one former prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, observed, “is an extremely fertile country: You plant functionaries and taxes grow.”
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Despite the reforming ambition of successive presidents — Jacques Chirac spoke of the “obesity of the state” in 1986 — the number of functionaries has grown by over one million in the last 30 years and now represents 22 percent of the entire work force. They are resilient.
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I recently rented an apartment and needed to furnish it.
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This was how I learned more about essential vs. nonessential items under the lockdown. I could buy electric cheese-heating raclette makers in a dozen different models. I could buy toasters galore, pans in all shapes, any form of home stereo equipment — but not a desk lamp.
At Boulanger, an electronics store, smoothie makers and vacuum cleaners were available for sale, but not refrigerators, stoves or other large appliances that had been roped off.
How this comported with controlling the coronavirus — over 100,000 people in France have died from it, and more than five million have been infected — was not immediately clear.
The sheer intricacy of the bureaucratic obtuseness overwhelmed me. I could not help wondering whether some fraction of the many hours devoted to coming up with such regulations might have been better used speeding the vaccines to more people. France has up to now underwhelmed in getting its population vaccinated.
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France, . . ., still has a commissioner general for planning, as if the Soviet Union had never disappeared. The country proceeds with methodical purpose based on the analysis and forecasts of highly trained public servants, formed in elite schools.
Still, an overwhelming question grips my entire being: Why these apparently arbitrary rules?
I asked a Castorama store assistant to explain why, for example, the lamps I coveted were off limits while I could buy a crepe maker.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “But, of course, you can always use a candle.”
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 26, 2021, and has the title “The Entangling, Ever-Extending Labyrinth of French Lockdowns.”)