Virus Outbreak France

A woman marches in August in Paris, in opposition to the country's introduction of COVID-19 passes to access restaurants, hospitality venues and cultural sites, and for domestic travel. The author says that, today, flashing your QR code at the brasserie door is as natural as, say, handing a waiter your credit card.

So, I was standing in line the other day, tired and jet-lagged, waiting for the zillionth time in the past half-century to get into France — my joy, my guide in things cultural and philosophical, my onetime longtime home.

And never on these glorious, passport-clutching entries have I been filled with such dread.

The U.S. had just pressured Australia to cancel a huge order for diesel-electric French submarines — and take our nuclear models instead — and yet we hadn’t bothered to inform the French. They were justly furious. I fleetingly feared they might take me hostage at the immigration desk in retaliation, as China did with those two Canadian diplomats finally swapped last week for a Chinese businesswoman.

Meanwhile, France has adopted one of the most devilish COVID restrictions in the world. To get into cafes, restaurants, museums and other public places, you must show electronic proof of vaccination — the famous “passe sanitaire.”

We Americans have only our pathetic paper vaccine records. I wasn’t entirely sure they’d be accepted, at immigration or the Cafe Varenne. And even if they were, I’d look like a tech-deprived bumpkin.

Well, it’s been a week now, and I’m still at large. Turns out that Franco-American diplomacy has had so many ups and downs in recent years that ordinary French no longer pay much attention to them. The submarine fracas is yesterday’s news.

Better yet, everybody I meet — from retail clerks to taxi drivers — are thrilled to see me and other Americans back in town after our long COVID-19 absence. The U.S. is the biggest non-European source of tourists here, and the dollar is reassuringly strong.

The real surprise is that I could easily convert my flimsy vaccine card into an official QR code — that little square symbol that can be scanned by cellphones. Took me 10 minutes online. Now, I flash my phone and glide into bars and bistros like a boulevardier.

If, that is, I can get a reservation. After three very strict nationwide lockdowns — at one point, you couldn’t go outdoors for more than an hour or stray farther than 0.6 of a mile from home — the French are partying like it’s 1944.

They have much to celebrate. The rate of active COVID-19 cases in France is one-tenth that of the U.S. Nearly 85 percent of adults here are fully vaccinated, versus about 55 percent of Americans. And for most French, vaccines are still not mandatory.

After a slow start, France has taken the pandemic seriously. Sidewalks are dotted with pop-up testing and vaccination sites. Mask mandates are strictly enforced. You can be fined more than $150 if you’re caught bare-faced on the Metro.

But, what really made the difference was the introduction last July of the electronic, cellphone-based pass sanitaire. It’s free, easy to get and less likely to be forgotten when you leave home than some unfamiliar paper document. Without the passe, you can’t go to a concert, hop on a bus or — mon Dieu! — dine in public.

That latter privilege is important to the French. After all, they invented the modern restaurant (after the 1789 Revolution drove aristocrats’ private chefs to set up shop for themselves). Today, flashing your QR code at the brasserie door is as natural as, say, handing a waiter your credit card.

Of course, there’s not much of that latter activity here anymore. You just wave your card (or your phone) over the card machine, and Bob’s your oncle. It’s all contactless.

The U.S. is now trying to force people to get vaccinated to keep their jobs. France has had more luck with a softer approach: targeting their stomachs, as well as the French fascination with technology. This is, after all, the land of the Minitel, a popular computer network that predated the internet by a decade. France is vastly more cellphoned and broadbanned than the U.S., and there are car-charging stations all over Paris.

America may have something to learn here. We may build great submarines, but we’re not good at social psychology. Attempts to impose COVID rules on Americans have prompted resentment and rebellion, an Enlightenment-era impulse we share with the French.

Indeed, there were fierce anti-restriction demonstrations here last summer, but they faded with the introduction of the pass sanitaire. Vaccinations then soared. The passe now has a 74 percent approval rating, higher than any president since Charles de Gaulle.

I suspect that’s because even the most liberty-loving French realized it was their no-cost meal ticket, their key to the nation’s culinary heritage, their painless path to a normal life. Besides, that whole QR contactless thing is, as the French would say, tres cool.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.