The ‘Let-Them-Eat-Cake’ Lockdown Diaries

Erin Zaleski
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

PARIS—“I wasn’t able to sleep last night,” began acclaimed French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani’s “Journal du confinement” (lockdown diary) in the French daily Le Monde. “From my bedroom window I watch the dawn break over the hills. The grass covered in frost, the first buds appearing on the branches of the trees...” 

Several days before President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide lockdown on March 16 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the prize-winning author of the international bestseller Chanson Douce (Lullaby) left Paris and holed up in her country house with her family. From there, she kept busy writing, entertaining her children and, like many of us in France, reflecting on the sudden, disorienting end to normal life. 

“Everything has stopped,” she wrote. “Like a game of musical chairs. The record goes silent, you have to sit, to no longer move… suddenly the carousel stops turning.”

One of the images that accompanied the text featured the photogenic writer looking out from a large casement window framed by thick ropes of ivy. Slimani was smiling, and the picture wouldn’t have looked out of place on pre-pandemic Instagram.

Lockdown journals in various forms have become common fixtures on social media and elsewhere in our locked-down world, but some can pretend to greater distinction than others.  Slimani is a beloved woman of letters who was just 35 years old when she won the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016. One of the brightest young literary stars in France would seem just the person to chronicle the quarantine. 

But the enraged response from many French readers has been a resounding non!  


INDECENT EXPOSURE

The diaries inflamed the smoldering class resentments that always lie near the surface here, and are only likely to get worse as the COVID-19 crisis drags on week after week, and soon month after month. This year’s upcoming spring vacations have been banned and families ordered to stay home. Not a great moment to read the epistles of the conspicuously leisured class.

Indeed, Slimani’s record of her countryside confinement provoked widespread fury and mockery—both at the writer herself and Le Monde for publishing her. Critics slammed the diary as “self-centered” and “grotesque,” decrying her musings as the embodiment of out of touch, upper class privilege—a literary “let them eat cake” moment in a time of national crisis. One article in the magazine Marianne even compared Slimani’s bucolic quarantine with Marie Antoinette’s affinity for playing peasant in her pseudo-rustic village at the Château de Versailles. 

“The intimate accounts of the bourgeois class are already highly annoying in times of peace,” the editor of the music and culture magazine Brain griped in a caustic editorial. “Today it’s no longer acceptable.” 

The Twittersphere was equally scathing. 

“Hi, poor people. Is it going well in your 15-square-meter [apartment] for three? To pass the time and alleviate the pressure of confinement, you can always read the diary of a writer in her family country home. Isn’t this living?” journalist Nicolas Quenel tweeted.

Le Monde was also roasted on the microblogging site, with one user telling the newspaper to yank the diary from its pages altogether.

“We will not read Leïla Slimani’s lockdown diary,” @PerrineST tweeted to her nearly 29,000 followers in a message to the newspaper. “I don’t know which imbecile gave this the go-ahead but it’s as indecent as it is useless. Erase it. There is still time.”

Slimani wasn’t the only prize-winning scribe to be blasted for recounting her days in confinement. A similar lockdown diary by writer and translator Marie Darrieussecq was also met with outrage after it appeared in the news magazine Le Point. Like Slimani, Darrieussecq, who decamped to her childhood country home in France’s Basque Country, also focused on the day-to-day in a bucolic, fairy-tale-like setting. 

“Two deer are grazing in our uncultivated garden,” she wrote. “A raptor makes circles in a sky without airplanes. Wild animals are taking advantage of man’s absence... The beach is deserted. I have a vision of a planet devoid of human beings.”

Darrieussecq’s descriptions of open spaces and a trip to the seaside were already enough to annoy many readers, who accused her of “romanticizing” the experience of lockdown, but they apparently found one passage particularly infuriating.

“We stash our car with Paris plates in the garage and take the old one that we keep here,” she recounted. “I feel like it is not good to drive around with a 75 (the code for Paris) on the bumper.”

Probably a wise move. In the hours leading up to the lockdown, the French capital’s highways and railway stations were glutted with Parisians looking to flee their apartments and wait out the quarantine in secondary residences either in the countryside or by the sea. The exodus didn’t sit well with many irate locals who feared (perhaps rightly so) that the wave of city dwellers could potentially bring thousands of new coronavirus infections to rural areas

But critics of Darrieussecq and Slimani were less concerned with the threat to public health and more enraged by the writers’ apparent prosperity. 

“Hey, Marie Darrieussecq has also started a lockdown diary from a secondary residence,” Laélia Véron, a writer and French teacher who runs a language podcast, tweeted the day after Darrieussecq’s first entry ran in Le Point. “What’s striking is the absence of originality, it closely resembles Slimani’s writing (a style likeness? A likeness of class especially).” 


CRAMPED QUARTERS

If you’ve ever spent any time inside a typical Paris apartment, you’d understand how nerves could be frayed. Space is at a premium, and dwellings are notoriously expensive and cramped. It’s not uncommon for a single person to squeeze into a 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) studio, or for a couple to share a place that makes a tiny New York City walk-up look spacious. And some Paris residents make do with even less space. The smallest legally allowed rental in the French capital is nine square meters (97 square feet)—smaller than some American university dorms. 

The trade-off for living in a figurative broom closet, of course, is the access to the city’s vibrant cultural life and myriad restaurants and bars. It’s easier to overlook the constraints of cramped quarters if you’re out working or socializing or enjoying the city. Under lockdown, however, a Paris apartment that’s only slightly larger than an average prison cell can take le confinement to another level. 

Secondary residences like Slimani’s number about three million. Many of these have been in families for generations, according to Jean Viard, a sociologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research. And while the country’s elite families have escaped to countryside retreats during pestilence or social upheaval throughout history, a boom in second homeownership among the upper-middle class only occurred in the 20th century. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Viard explained, the number of farms in France decreased from 3 million to 500,000. The roughly 2.5 million former farms either remained within families or were sold to be converted to second homes for city dwellers. 


HIDDEN VIRTUES

There is a well-known proverb in France: “Pour vivre heureux vivons cachés.” (To live happily, we live hidden.) Originating from a famous fable by the 18th-century writer Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, the expression extols the virtue of keeping your private life private, particularly if your lifestyle or possessions may provoke the envy of others. 

Such a concept may seem quaint in the United States, where an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” mentality is king and images of superyachts and luxury vacations are regularly splashed across social media feeds. In France, however, showy displays of affluence are commonly perceived as vulgar, or even foolish. Why pique the interest of potential thieves, or, for that matter, the tax man? 

Indeed, reality star Kim Kardashian (who, putting it mildly, is not known for discretion) got a frightening taste of the potential perils facing the wealthy who opt out of “living hidden” back in 2016, when she was robbed at gunpoint at a luxury Paris residence by a group of bandits who made off with millions worth of jewelry. Days earlier, the social media maven had posted a sultry Instagram selfie in which she sported a 20-carat, emerald-cut diamond ring valued at around $4 million. The robbers reportedly got wind of the photo and then hatched a plan. Kardashian was left traumatized but unharmed. Although the thieves were caught, the glacier-sized bauble was never recovered. 

While the goings on in the journals of Slimani and Darrieussecq are devoid of the ostentatious antics that Kardashian and other Insta-famous types seem to thrive on, the implication beneath the hostility coming from certain corners of the internet is that they should have known better.

Lockdown looks a lot different when you’re surrounded by picturesque landscapes and have the means to spend your time working on creative projects, taking a drive to the seaside or meditating, than it does if you’re trapped in a claustrophobic studio with several family members and worried about paying the bills. 

Some even questioned whether the term “lockdown” is applicable to these authors. As one Twitter user put it, “being confined in a big house in Normandy is not torture. Vacations are a luxury.” The writers’ decision to detail these apparent privileges in public journals demonstrated a casual and clueless narcissism, as well as a certain recklessness. Such a fallout would have never occurred, the logic goes, had they only kept a low profile. 

Viard said that the fierce reaction on social media is rooted in both history and contemporary right and left-wing French political movements. Just as France’s wealthy have a long history of fleeing to the countryside during times of crisis, contempt for the elite dates back centuries. Remember the French Revolution? 

“Certainly, these aren’t women from the banlieues [disadvantaged suburbs that ring the cities] and the father of Leila was a government minister in Morocco,” said Viard. “They are part of the bourgeoisie.”

‘Eat The Rich’: Still a Popular Idea in French Uprisings, Especially With the Yellow Vests


OTHER PEOPLE'S LUCK

The recent rise of the gilet jaune (yellow vest) movement gave the long-running resentment of the wealthy a ferocious new voice. Born from rural anger over a proposed fuel tax hike and later morphing into a populist, anti-Macron revolt, the gilets jaunes took to the streets of central Paris for nearly 18 consecutive months before the lockdown put an end to all gatherings. 

When the protests tipped to violence, traditional symbols of wealth like luxury chains and banks were targets of vandalism. A year ago, protesters also set fire to the landmark restaurant Fouquet’s. The upmarket brasserie with the red awning on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées has been open since 1899 and is known as a long-running haunt for the city’s well-heeled. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy (who was nicknamed “President Bling-Bling”) celebrated his election victory there.

The gilets jaunes don’t hold a monopoly on the vitriol being directed at the lockdown diarists, Viard insisted, pointing out that most of the online barbs came from urban ultra-leftists. Most are young and educated, and nearly all are Parisians. 

Viard believes that the extreme reaction to the diaries boils down to a need for scapegoating during an uncertain time, adding that frequently it is immigrants, not the wealthy, who bear the brunt of the blame in times of crisis. 

“Immigrants didn’t bring the virus because the virus circulated in airplanes,” he said. “Immigrants come by foot or by boat, and if you look at the coronavirus map, you will see that there is no overlap with the immigration map. We can’t attack the immigrants, so we have tried to make the rich the scapegoats.”

Perhaps. But the root causes of the anger at the diarists may be more fundamental than that, and there certainly is nothing new about radical leftists and anarchists finding common cause with, for instance, the gilets jaunes.

Journalist Clément Arbrun wrote in the online women’s magazine Terrafemina, “This unprecedented lockdown is only rendering more visible the deep social discriminations that are already present, but too often ignored,” then added bluntly, “A sort of class war has emerged between those who have the leisure—and comfort—to idealize this isolation, and the disadvantaged.” 

In the meantime, despite the harsh reception to their initial entries, both writers have continued their diaries. On March 23, Darrieussecq described the logistical difficulties of organizing a funeral for her mother-in-law, while Slimani, whose most recent entry was published a few days ago, has shared some of the quarantine letters she' received from readers and friends.

Among them is the viral parody purportedly written by F. Scott Fitzgerald while he was quarantined in the South of France during the Spanish Flu outbreak. Slimani, like many others, initially believed the letter was authentic, and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t. She nevertheless turned to Fitzgerald for comfort, quoting from his collection of essays, The Crack-Up.

“In these times of melancholy and solitude,” she wrote, “Fitzgerald is a wonderful companion.”

It turns out he also had some rather Gallic-like advice. In a letter to his daughter Scottie, who was away at college, Fitzgerald stressed the importance of keeping a low profile.

“Nothing is more obnoxious,” quipped the author, “than other people’s luck.”

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