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Food supplies are being maintained – but for how long?

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

Try to understand how France functions as a society and you have to focus on food. It dominates every department of Gallic life, from the making of political decisions to the rhythm of daily life.

Even revolutions and wars – the key catalysts for change in a long and turbulent history – have been influenced by what people consume, and indeed what they are prevented from consuming.

As the country tries to cope with the global Coronavirus pandemic – potentially one of the darkest episodes in its entire history – French leaders are
certainly aware of the critical importance of feeding an increasingly fearful population.

Restaurants and cafés all shut down when President Emmanuel Macron put cities and towns into lockdown, but there was of course no question of closing food stores, market stalls or supermarkets.

Every basic ingredient remained available, ensuring that the sacred ritual of mealtimes – and the reassurance that it brings – can continue.
But for how much longer?

The question is undoubtedly high in the minds of Parisians as they watch disturbingly aggressive police and gendarmes imposing movement restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The firm advice from Interior Minister Christophe Castaner is for people to “Stay at Home”, to the extent that the bakers, grocers, fishmongers and others involved in the food industry that I have spoken to have been left wondering why they should be taking so many risks.

“When everybody else is being told to stay in with only brief visits to stock up on food, why are we all still at work?” a supermarket manager on duty close to the Louvre museum told me within hours of the lockdown being activated.

“The supply of food relies on us, and also a long chain of other people including lorry drivers and health inspectors.

“If we go home – and many of my colleagues are asking to do just that – then the country is going to be in very big trouble.

“We’re currently coming into contact with hundreds of people every day, and we have no idea whether they are infected or not.”

Beyond the obvious dangers of malnutrition and – it has to be considered as we progress into the unknown – starvation, food shortages inevitably lead to social unrest.

A wave of riots in France in 1775 became known as the Flour War because it was caused by an increase in the price of grain and flour, and subsequently bread.

King Louis XVI and the Ancien Régime never recovered from the unrest, which was a prelude to the French Revolution itself.

The tale about Louis’s wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, suggesting that the poor “eat cake” rather than bread is an apocryphal one, but food deprivation
was a crucial factor in the demise of the Monarchy, and the creation of the modern Republic.

Speak to Parisians who lived through Nazi Occupation during the Second World War, and hunger and scavenging are also an abiding memory.

The privations meant rationing and huge queues at the few food stores that remained open during the really hard times.

There was a Ministry of Food Supply to deal with the crisis, and it tried to prioritise mothers with large families in the constant struggle to get people fed.

President Macron has stated that France is currently “at war” with Coronavirus, so it would not be alarmist to suggest that similar measures to deal with food scarcity are a strong possibility.

There is no doubt that the crisis has started, and all contingency plans have to be made for dealing with disaster.

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