by Marina Julienne

March 10, 2024

from LeJournalCNRS

translation by Biblioteca Pleyades

Original version in French






Place du Trocadéro, in Paris,

during confinement, March 23, 2020.
Simon Lambert / Haytham-RÉA


France is one of the countries which adopted the strictest containment rules in March 2020 to fight the Covid-19 "pandemic". Historian and sociologist, Nicolas Mariot wondered about this experience of mass obedience.

Nicolas Mariot, 1 co-wrote with Théo Boulakia 2 a work in the form of an investigation, L'Attestation (Anamosa, 2023), which takes stock of this coercive side of national confinement.


Faced with the same health threat, countries have not adopted the same measures to fight the virus at all?

Nicolas Mariot. Indeed, in spring 2020, all governments found themselves in the same situation at the same time:

100% of decisions had to be made with 50% information, as the Dutch Prime Minister said then.

However, states have adopted radically different policies.


To stick to Europe, five southern countries,

  • France

  • Italy

  • Spain

  • Greece

  • Cyprus,

...have adopted some of the strictest measures, with certification, subjecting all movement of their population to strict rules, controlled by the police.


At the same time, Nordic countries such as,

  • Sweden

  • Finland

  • Denmark

  • Norway

  • the Netherlands,

...but also,

  • Switzerland

  • Bulgaria,

...have adopted health measures like everywhere (wearing a mask, banning gatherings, recommending hand washing, etc.), but left the exits completely free.


As a result, in France, attendance at green spaces in spring 2020 halved compared to winter, while in Denmark, over the same period, it doubled.

Soldiers patrol rue de Rivoli, in Paris,

on March 20, 2020.

Going out without certification

is punishable by a fine of 135 euros.
Dmitry Kostyukov

The New York Times-REDUX-RÉA

In the way of addressing the populations also, the tone was different.


While President Emmanuel Macron repeats four times, on March 16, in his speech to the French the famous,

"We are at war", 3 against "a health enemy certainly" but "elusive and progressing".

For his part, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier declares that,

"no this "pandemic" is not a war".

The Dutch authorities are publishing a communications manual on the virus banning all warlike language in favor of messages emphasizing the collective dimension of the fight against Covid.


In France, have local authorities even tightened national measures?

N. M. (Nicolas Mariot)

Indeed, by a decree of March 23, prefects and mayors were encouraged to "use all of their police powers" and to "adopt more restrictive measures - than those taken at the national level - when legal circumstances exist. 'require'.


And they did not hesitate to use this power! Seventeen prefectures have established curfews for people, thirty for businesses, nine departments having opted for both; more than two hundred municipalities also established their own curfews which overlapped - or not - with those of the prefectures.


The limitation on outings has also been tightened: eighty-three departments have set out restrictions on access to places of nature and relaxation, sometimes with an incongruous justification, such as "Containment is not vacation!".


Or with absurd mentions, such as,

"the ban on buying a baguette or a single newspaper at a time", or even "the ban on sitting on public benches".

These various complementary measures have often led to a break with one of the fundamental principles legitimizing confinement:

the equality of all in the face of prohibitions.


"Containment is not vacation!",

 argued certain political authorities

to justify the closure of green spaces.
Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via AFP

How can we explain that France chose to adopt such a coercive policy?

N. M.

If Italy was the first European country exposed to the virus to take drastic measures, the countries which subsequently adopted the strictest rules were not more at risk, from a health point of view, than the others.


The difference in reaction is clearly linked to the coercive habits of governments:

we show that the more European states have police officers per inhabitant, or the more they are used to freeing themselves from public freedoms, the more they have locked up their populations.

During this "pandemic", we have therefore seen the resurgence of old habits of punitive population management.


For France, this policy undoubtedly also demonstrated the authorities' lack of confidence in the ability of residents to follow the recommended policy.


The country was emerging from the "yellow vest" crisis and demonstrations against pension reform, our leaders probably feared a hostile reaction.

Have police checks been much more frequent in France than elsewhere?

N. M.

We are one of the rare countries to have introduced the famous "exit certificate", presented as an accountability system but quickly became a massive control tool.


Transform everyone into their own policeman:

it is this device (borrowed from the Italians) which made it possible to empty public space.

According to the "Life in Confinement" (Vico) 4 survey, which we launched in April 2020 and in which 16,000 people participated, 28% of people say they have been checked at least once from March 17 to May 11, 2020, so in just 55 days!


"In two months,

21 million people were checked in France.

In certain departments,

there were as many checks as adult residents!"

The Ministry of the Interior put forward the figure for the same period of 21 million checks throughout France (for 67 million inhabitants), including people who may have been checked several times.


In departments like Sarthe or Lot, the police and gendarmerie carried out as many checks as there were adult residents.


And for the Lot, there are even more checks (153,000) than residents aged 15 and over (149,000)!


But the important thing is to understand what we have called the "moral shock" of control.

While numerous surveys show that in "normal" times it is the vast majority of men, young and of a "foreign" appearance whose identity is checked.


This time it was women, executives, people aged 30 and over, almost never concerned, who were very widely controlled.


Some departments controlled a lot

and issued few fines (the Lot),

others controlled little but issued

a lot of fines (La-Seine Saint-Denis).
Aurélie Boissière / Éditions Anamosa

Did these checks result in any fines?


It depends.


In the Lot, to continue with this example, the police were constantly patrolling but rarely fined. In Seine-Saint-Denis, checks were rarer but 17% resulted in fines, one of the highest rates in France.


In addition, the fines were concentrated on four zones: the Mediterranean coast, the North and Ile de France, the East and the overseas departments, once again establishing a de facto inequality between citizens.


At the European level, we were able to recover the number of fines in a few countries.


Spain is at the top of the podium, with 2,157 fines per 100,000 inhabitants, followed closely by France (1,630), then Italy (709), with the Netherlands coming in at the bottom, with 77 fines per 100,000 inhabitants.


Not everyone has experienced the same confinement, far from it.

How can we explain that the population has largely obeyed these very restrictive rules?

N. M.

We had two hypotheses to explain why 80% of the population agreed to stay locked up at home: fear of the virus and fear of the police.


The Vico survey showed us that during this entire period, there were never more than 50% of people who respected health recommendations (putting on a mask, washing their hands, etc.).


So the fear of the virus is not enough, in itself, to explain the massive obedience to the rules.


A family enjoys green spaces

in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 3, 2020.

Ten people can meet within a limit

of 40 m² marked on the ground.
Ida Guldbaek Arentsen / EPA / Newscom / MaxPPP

Furthermore, we must highlight a more horizontal dimension of obedience, that which relates to comparison with others.


The fact is that many people were concerned to set an example and/or to ensure that their neighbors did not have a privilege, however small.


The explosion of denunciations during the period (addressed to mayors, police stations or local radio stations) is a sign of this fundamental concern:

the rules are not called into question since their application seems to leave no room for arbitrariness.

Finally, we must insist on the expulsion of all human presence from public spaces:

bars and parks are closed, beaches and forests are prohibited, night lighting is often removed.

All these measures resulted in what we called "disquiet from outside."


For women in particular, it has become distressing to venture into a deserted space, for fear of an outside world that has become too strange.

At the international level, have other countries adopted more draconian measures?

N. M.

We have all seen terrifying images of Chinese people locked up, or violently evicted from their homes.


But it is necessary to note a notable difference between China and France:

in the first country, it is always a health reason which governs the enactment of new rules.

Containment is applied in different provinces successively depending on the spread of the epidemic, and differently depending on the "negative", "contact case" or "infected" status of the people.


It never affects all citizens at the same time and in the same way, unlike what happens in France.


Thanks to geolocation data from Google,

made anonymous,

 the researchers were able to compare the use

of green spaces during confinement, between March and June,

compared to January 2020.

Europe is then clearly divided into two:

the countries where we can go out

and those where the inhabitants are locked up.
Aurélie Boissière / Éditions Anamosa

Finally, if I had to do it again, in which country would it be preferable to reside?

N. M.

In countries which experienced a mortality deficit during the period (yes, there are some), without imposing house arrest.


For example,

  • Japan

  • Taiwan

  • Denmark

Conversely, we would not go to,

  • Kuwait

  • Ecuador

  • Peru

But France is not much more attractive.


And Spain was the country which experienced the most serious excess mortality, 40%, while it is also the country which confined its inhabitants the most... to finally declare this confinement unconstitutional, and offer reimbursement of the fines to its citizens.

What surprised you about this investigation?

N. M.

I was very surprised to see that no major media, but also that no research team, in France and even, unless I am mistaken, in Europe, was interested in taking stock of this period from the point of view not health, but regulatory.


However, there are many lessons to be learned from this experience, because we are not safe from a new "pandemic".


Furthermore, with hindsight, we see that this confinement, which was accepted because it concerned everyone regardless of their social class, age, income level, place of residence, was in fact relatively unequal in its terms of application, due to the great freedom left to local authorities and law enforcement.


Finally, as a historian specializing in the war of 14-18, I have already studied such an experience of obedience on a large scale.


And I was surprised that a new form of sacred union justifying suspension of freedoms and government without control could be repeated almost a century later in the same way...





  1. Nicolas Mariot is a historian and sociologist, director of research at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science at the Sorbonne (CNRS/EHESS/Université Panthéon-Sorbonne).

  2. Théo Boulakia is a doctoral student in sociology at the Maurice Halbwachs Center (CNRS/EHESS/ENS-PSL).

  3. "We are at war: the verbatim of Emmanuel Macron's speech" (, March 16, 2020).

  4. Funded by the National Research Agency.