House Arrest

15 October, 2021
Unti­tled, acrylic and pen­cil on paper, 2016 (cour­tesy artist Ran­da Hijazi).

Claire Berlinski


I knew this lock­down busi­ness was seri­ous when they can­celled my con­vo­ca­tion.

I had a con­vo­ca­tion—a summons—to renew my carte de séjour. I had been told to present myself at exact­ly 8:35 a.m. at the Pré­fec­ture de Police in the IVe arrondisse­ment on March 16th, 2020.

The annu­al con­vo­ca­tion at the Pré­fec­ture is a grave rit­u­al for every for­eign­er in France. The list of doc­u­ments you must pro­vide is long, strange, and very pre­cise. There are infi­nite­ly many rumors about how the process real­ly works. No one is exact­ly sure.

I have been high­ly impressed by the French bureau­cra­cy. Their paper­work requests are exact­ing and pecu­liar, but if you give them pre­cise­ly what they request, they are polite, com­pe­tent, and pro­fes­sion­al. It’s not a sur­re­al and sadis­tic game, like the Turk­ish bureau­cra­cy. In its own way, it works very well.

This time, though, I fig­ured the con­vo­ca­tion was a death sentence.

There would be hun­dreds of peo­ple on line to enter the Pré­fec­ture. No mat­ter how ear­ly I got  there, I’d end up stand­ing with the coughers and nose-pick­ers. They’d squeeze us in groups of about twen­ty into an enclosed antecham­ber, where we’d wait to go through the secu­ri­ty line to have our bags x‑rayed. One of the bag­gage screen­ers, I was sure, would be named “Patient X” in the literature.

We’d wait for our con­vo­ca­tion in a crowd­ed room. No one would be sure who would be sum­moned next or why, so every­one would crowd togeth­er near the offi­cials until they’re called or shooed away, like seals at feed­ing time. We’d sit on their ancient plas­tic chairs — a virus, I fig­ured, could live on those things for weeks. 

It occurred to me that every­one else, just like me, was oblig­ed to be there, even if they knew they were sick. Even if they were gasp­ing for oxy­gen and drib­bling with fever sweat. Peo­ple would crawl right out of the ICU to make sure they didn’t miss their con­vo­ca­tion.

I did it every year, so I knew the rou­tine. You slow­ly pass your papers back and forth with an offi­cial who inevitably touch­es her nose as she stud­ies them. She pass­es them back to you, telling you to re-order them. She licks her fin­gers to leaf through documents.

My stom­ach turned think­ing about it. I was good as dead.

We had all been offi­cial­ly advised to stay at home. We were not sup­posed to go out unless our busi­ness was “essen­tial to the life of the nation.” Was this appoint­ment, I asked myself, essen­tial to the life of the nation? What did essen­tial mean, precisely?

I asked my friends. With­out hes­i­ta­tion, they said, “Of course it is.” This was France. You do not miss your con­vo­ca­tion.

They were right, I con­clud­ed. It was a para­dox. A nation in which con­vo­ca­tions are inessen­tial might still be a nation, but it would not be the nation of France. I resigned myself to my fate and put my papers in order.

I rose ear­ly and set off for my appoint­ment in Samar­ra. I wore gloves. I brought my own pen. I put a vial of rub­bing alco­hol in my handbag.There was a long line, as I expect­ed. Every­one kept a meter’s dis­tance from each oth­er, just as the gov­ern­ment advised. The line stretched all the way to the Quai du Pont Neuf. We all car­ried cer­ti­fied trans­la­tions of our birth cer­tifi­cates, two copies of our most recent elec­tric­i­ty bill, four reg­u­la­tion-sized pho­tographs, and signed cer­tifi­cates attest­ing to our com­mit­ment to the non-prac­tice of polygamy.

I wait­ed with the rest of the sup­pli­cants. We watched each oth­er uneasi­ly. No one coughed.

Sud­den­ly, the doors of the Pré­fec­ture opened, and a pha­lanx of police­women barged out. They looked at us like we were imbe­ciles. What part of “essen­tial to the nation” had we failed to under­stand? They barked, “Ren­trez chez vous!”

That’s when it dawned on me — they were seri­ous. If they were can­celling our con­vo­ca­tions, we were tru­ly under house arrest. They were send­ing us home — and they weren’t going to let us out again.

The gov­ern­ment ordered us to stay inside our homes. It did not advise us, it ordered us. We could not step out­side with­out a per­mit. This had nev­er hap­pened before in peace­time France.

Pres­i­dent Macron addressed the nation. He used the words “at war” six times. The Decree of March 16, 2020, for­bid all move­ment out­side save to seek food or med­ical care. Dogs could relieve them­selves, but there was to be no social dog-walk­ing. One per­son per dog — and get it over with quickly.

The per­mit was anoth­er exceed­ing­ly com­plex French form. You had to down­load it every time and sign it, indi­cat­ing the pre­cise time you set foot out­doors. At first, they gave us per­mis­sion to exer­cise out­side for an hour — prison yard priv­i­leges, so to speak — but they quick­ly cracked down even on that. Too many peo­ple, the Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter Cas­ten­er explained, were using it as an excuse to socialize.

The exas­per­at­ed Cas­ten­er put 100,000 police and gen­darmes on the streets to enforce the decree. “The orders are clear,” said Cas­tan­er. “Stay at home.”

Vehic­u­lar police were deployed in fixed and mobile posi­tions on the main and ancil­lary traf­fic axes. “There is no glo­ry,” Cas­ten­er intoned, “in refus­ing to sub­mit to health mea­sures and, through irre­spon­si­ble behav­ior, becom­ing an ally of the virus.”

The gov­ern­ment began fly­ing heli­copters and drones to ensure every­one stayed locked up.

I’m on a neigh­bor­hood mail­ing list, one we usu­al­ly use to announce miss­ing cats or impend­ing con­struc­tion. One neigh­bor wrote to the group to warn us: Watch out. The police are being com­plete­ly unrea­son­able. He had just gone out to get water, he report­ed, but he was stopped, scold­ed, and giv­en a fine by the police. “I guess,” he wrote, “that water is not con­sid­ered essen­tial to life.” The sub­ject of his e‑mail was ABUSE OF POWER!

Some neigh­bors sym­pa­thized. Oth­ers point­ed out that water comes out of our tap.

This was all very strange. I did not dis­ap­prove of the pol­i­cy. Quar­an­tine is an ancient rem­e­dy for pan­demics, and it was all we had, at the time. But I had nev­er expe­ri­enced house arrest before. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d be okay. It wouldn’t, if I was hon­est, be such a change. I work at home, nor­mal­ly. And I’m high­ly intro­vert­ed. I thought it over: I liked my apart­ment. It’s cozy. I always feel guilty for not going out more and tak­ing advan­tage of all that Paris has to offer, any­way. I like my own com­pa­ny. I was both pleased and embar­rassed to real­ize I didn’t much object to being imprisoned.

But sure­ly that couldn’t be right, I thought. House arrest, after all, is a pun­ish­ment. It’s been used as a pun­ish­ment since antiq­ui­ty. Sure­ly it must be deeply dis­agree­able — because it has to be. Oth­er­wise, the threat of it wouldn’t dis­suade any­one from break­ing the law. Was there some­thing awful about it that I was about to dis­cov­er? Per­haps I would go insane?

Our con­di­tions were, in fact, even more ardu­ous than those of typ­i­cal detainees under house arrest. Mine was “the most severe form of house arrest,” accord­ing to my legal dic­tio­nary, for we weren’t allowed out­side even to go to work or reli­gious ser­vices. There were no ankle bracelets, but apart from this, I was liv­ing the life of a non-vio­lent first offend­er who had com­mit­ted a crime for which jail would be too harsh, but pro­ba­tion too lenient. (Fraud, say, or embez­zle­ment. Drunk dri­ving, perhaps.)

With­in weeks, the entire world joined me in cap­tiv­i­ty. All nor­mal social inter­course ceased. The State Depart­ment issued a Lev­el Four trav­el advi­so­ry for the entire plan­et. Glob­al tourism van­ished. The world’s bor­ders, includ­ing the inter­nal bor­ders of the Schen­gen Zone, slammed shut. The edu­ca­tion of 1.5 bil­lion school­child­ren was sus­pend­ed. The per­ished were sent to their repose with­out funer­als. To pre­vent its cit­i­zens from starv­ing, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment passed a spend­ing pack­age larg­er than the GNP of the Sovi­et Union at its zenith.

Not all of the news was bad. Pris­on­ers who had been detained with­out tri­al or impris­oned on triv­ial charges were released.

But as the weeks passed, I real­ized my ini­tial instinct was right. I was fine. In fact, I enjoyed it. This made me appre­ci­ate how real and sig­nif­i­cant the dif­fer­ence is between intro­verts and extro­verts. As is the dif­fer­ence between being locked down by your­self and being locked down with your fam­i­ly. The peo­ple I knew who were locked down with their fam­i­lies went insane. Every one of them. They latched on to the Great Bar­ring­ton Dec­la­ra­tion and spent their days rant­i­ng on and on about Sweden.

My extro­vert­ed friends were mis­er­able. One of them shared an online tuto­r­i­al on Face­book. It was titled, “How to keep your­self occu­pied dur­ing lock­down.” I watched it in puz­zle­ment: I couldn’t fath­om hav­ing so lit­tle idea how to enter­tain myself that I had to watch a tuto­r­i­al for ideas. I had just amused myself all day long with a can of spray paint and a milk car­ton. I had sev­er­al milk car­tons left, too.

I felt bad for my friends who were freak­ing out. Some start­ed call­ing me all day long, say­ing they want­ed “to keep my spir­its up.” My spir­its were fine, except when I was inter­rupt­ed by the phone ring­ing. Peo­ple claimed to be wor­ried about me because I lived alone. I don’t think they real­ized what a bless­ing it was. I don’t fault them for wor­ry­ing, though. It’s true that I didn’t leave my apart­ment or see anoth­er human being for months — and soli­tary con­fine­ment is reput­ed to be a tor­ture — so I can see why they wor­ried. And I can’t quite explain why I did so well.

It’s odd that I don’t get lone­ly any­more. I know I did when I was younger. I remem­ber that. But now, demon­stra­bly, I don’t. I can stay in my apart­ment, alone, for weeks and weeks, with­out anoth­er soul around, and bare­ly notice it. Is this a sign I’ve devel­oped unusu­al men­tal strength? Or is it a sign that I’ve turned into a weird her­mit in mid­dle age? I don’t know.

I real­ly didn’t like the sound of Covid. I’d sur­vive it, almost cer­tain­ly; I’ve got none of the dread pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions. But my broth­er had caught it, ear­ly on. Long Covid is mis­er­able, and he’s still suf­fer­ing from it. I real­ly didn’t want to share that expe­ri­ence with him. So even after the lock­down eased, I kept to myself. I took no unnec­es­sary risks. And to my bewil­der­ment, iso­la­tion con­tin­ued to agree with me just fine. I didn’t under­stand this. Peo­ple go mad in soli­tary con­fine­ment, don’t they? I wasn’t going mad—not even close. Could it be that email and Twit­ter real­ly are an ade­quate replace­ment for friends and family? 

I’m vac­ci­nat­ed now, and life in France has more or less returned to nor­mal. I go gro­cery shop­ping. I meet my friends for cof­fee and din­ner. But some­times, when peo­ple call me to ask if I want to go out and do the sorts of things you real­ly do have to do now and again, if you want to keep your friends, I secret­ly miss the lockdown. 

Cer­tain­ly, the threat of house arrest would no longer deter me from com­mit­ting a crime.



Inline Feedbacks
View all comments