Todd McCarthy: In Cannes, Empty Beaches And Empty Screens

Whales can be seen spouting offshore, wildlife is coming back, the sea is loaded with fish and dolphins are cavorting in the port of Toulouse. But the movies screens of Cannes are empty at a time when the film world’s attention is normally fixated on the cascade of cinema that annually overtakes the South of France in mid-May.

Not only are the cinemas dark, but so are the hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops that are normally teeming with crowds at this time of year. There are only four commercial flights per day in and out of Nice, and private jets have even been turned away, leaving most of the posh houses along the coast empty.

Keen to get a sense of what life in Cannes is like during festival time in the year of the virus, 2020, I called my old New York pal Max Rothman, who runs an apartment booking service called Cannes Concierge and has booked my accommodations there for eons. Knowing the French as well as he does, Max said he was expecting the populace to shrug their shoulders, Gallic style, and try to go on as normal. “For one week, nobody was going to give in. But very soon, even though they resented it, everyone got in line. When the government declared a lockdown, everybody complied. To my amazement, the French were very docile about it.”

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Many of the emergency rules put in place would have been considered far too draconian to many Americans. Citizens were limited to walking no further than one kilometer from home and were required to carry special documents if they intended to be away for more than one hour, all public hugging and kissing stopped, masks became the norm and social distancing was very closely observed.

“People are freaked out,” Max believes, “they’re all on guard. The government got tough about it and is full of testosterone, so everyone got in line. People have changed their mores, I think permanently. People are taking it very seriously.”

From a business, logistical and supplies point of view, the realities seem similar to what they’ve been in the United States. It may be hard to envision Cannes, and all of France, for that matter, absent its cafes, restaurants, hotels and beaches, but those have all been closed. Just this week, beaches are being opened for walking but not sunbathing or swimming.

As for food, supermarkets lacked produce the first week but are now doing business, although prices for some goods have as much as tripled. Open-air markets had been entirely banned but are just now beginning to open under very close scrutiny. While there has been no lack of food, Max said that shortages are expected this summer, as itinerant immigrants who normally do farm labor are not being allowed into the country at this point.

Having lived in France for decades, Max has been surprised at how cooperative the French have been about obeying the government’s edicts. “Social distancing has been very closely observed,” he reported. “In less than three months, everything has changed. And I personally think it will be permanent. The French culture has changed.”

As of now, the government intends to lift many of the restrictions on June 2, and unlike some other regions, the fatality rate in the Alps-Maritimes area, which includes Nice, Monaco, Antibes and Cannes, stands at a comparatively low 250 people.

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