We don't want your virus! Provincial France fumes after urban exodus

SAINT-JACUT-DE-LA-MER, France (Reuters) - In the Brittany village of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer, resentment is simmering at the city-dwellers who this week fled their Parisian pads for their seaside bolt-holes and who, in the minds of locals, may have brought the coronavirus with them.

A view shows a beach in Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer, Brittany, as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, March 19, 2020. Picture taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Affluent neighbourhoods of Paris emptied this week after President Emmanuel Macron gave France notice of an impending lockdown meant to halt the spread of the outbreak.

As in Italy, where earlier in March people from the wealthy Lombardy region headed south to beat a quarantine in the north, the exodus has raised fears in provincial France that the spread of the outbreak will accelerate in areas hitherto not exposed.

One pensioner who gave his name as Daniel said the holiday homes around him had filled up overnight after Macron’s national address on Monday, when he declared “war” on the virus and issued unprecedented restrictions on public life.

“They behave like they’re on holiday,” said the 74-year-old, declining to give his full name for fear of creating a rift with his neighbours. “There’s no doubt all this movement of people is going to quicken the spread of the virus.”

It is relatively common for city dwellers in France to own a house in the country, and the practice has helped countless rural villages survive. The 900-strong population of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer grows ten-fold in the summer.

But the exodus has amplified tensions in France around city dwellers who treat the countryside like their playground and then leave when it suits.

Brittany has registered 297 confirmed coronavirus cases out of 11,000 cases nationwide, according to the national health body.

But some doctors in provincial towns and cities say they now fear a wave of infections that will place an already-strained healthcare system under severe stress - an sentiment echoed in villages.

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“We can’t take in everybody,” said David, an unemployed inhabitant of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer.


An estimated 17% of Parisians left the capital in the 48 hours after Macron announced the confinement measures, according to Martin Hirsch, head of the Paris hospitals network. The unofficial figure was based on power consumption.

Locals had been particularly vexed by the sight of their city neighbours jogging in groups along the beaches, violating the president’s orders to exercise alone to minimise the risk of transmission.

From the Atlantic coast to the French Riviera, police are now enforcing local orders prohibiting access to beaches.

Macron and his government have expressed irritation this week at the lax attitude of some French towards the restrictions on public life, which demand people stay in their homes unless to buy food, go to work or seek medical care.

The owner of the La Goelette pizzeria in the village, forced to close during the lockdown, said she emphasized with city residents who wanted to escape the confines of their apartments.

“We all want to look after ourselves,” she said. “If everyone respects the rules and stays indoors, it doesn’t bother me.”

A retired lawyer from Versailles just outside Paris, who gave her name as Isabelle, said she and her husband had been checking on their holiday home after the winter when the lockdown was announced and decided to stay.

“It goes without saying that we’re better off here than in the Paris region,” she said. “People at this time are generally welcoming, as long as everyone keeps their distance and stays indoors.”

Reporting by Pierre-Henri Allain; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood