PARIS: France’s Lebanese community talk about confinement during the pandemic and where they would rather be
France is home to about 250,000 Lebanese — students, entrepreneurs, businessmen, bankers, architects, doctors, surgeons, restaurateurs, hoteliers, nurses and orderlies. Arab News asked a number of them about the lockdown in France and whether they felt safer in France than in Lebanon.
Most of those interviewed felt that the French state was more concerned with the health and well-being of its citizens and more willing to compensate companies for losses incurred than the Lebanese state, which is overwhelmed with bankruptcy and debts and is unable to ensure even the lowest standards of living for its citizens.
Ziad Asseily, co-owner of the Liza restaurants in Paris and Beirut with his wife Liza, is now confined to home in Paris. “I was in Beirut and I went back to Paris to be with my wife Liza and my daughter just before the closure of Beirut airport. I would say that I feel safer in Paris than in Beirut for the fight against coronavirus because in France we have a comprehensive government that manages the situation. In Lebanon, people have to rely on themselves to face this crisis,” he said.
“During my stay in Lebanon, I met some friends who took the initiative to abide by the internationally imposed prevention measures long before the Lebanese government imposed them. Citizens resorted to home confinement even before the government decided to suspend international flights. They understood that it was the right step to take, to isolate oneself.”
“This is on a personal level,” Asseily said. “Business-wise, the government’s resolutions are very reassuring in France. I have two restaurants which I closed in the same week. The consequences of the closure are disastrous for me, my employees, for everyone. In Lebanon, we are witnessing a widespread economic and financial crisis. The situation was very difficult. I managed to keep the restaurant in Lebanon running as the revolt was brewing but between Oct.15 and Dec.15, it was disastrous, we lost a lot of money. The holiday season saved the day but between January 15 and March 15 the pace of work declined until the restaurant closed its doors after March 10.
“Since the economy came to a near stop, we have been using the idle time to improve our business by accelerating the digitization of our work. What is happening now is that we are heading towards the future at full throttle. People have quickly adopted digital tools, whether in schools, private lessons or group games in videoconferencing. These are tools that existed for a very long time and were not used by the majority of people because there was no need. But from the moment everyone was confined, right away there was a mind-blowing adoption of these tools. In my field of work, delivery will prevail.
“Those first days of confinement, people panicked and stored all kind of produce at home. I believe that in two to three weeks, once people get used to their new lifestyle, they will tire of eating pasta and rice and will start ordering Japanese, Lebanese, and Chinese food and burgers again. I think that delivery in a few weeks will spike. I am also a shareholder in a company called L’atelier des Chefs that offers cooking classes through online workshops. These online kitchens have grown steadily over the past few days.
“Through the things I spotted around me in Beirut and Paris, I felt that this break was more than welcomed. Business at our restaurant in Beirut was going smoothly for years. However, in Paris, since the yellow vests movement and the strikes of December, people limited their movements which deeply affected our sector. In response to these events, the French government is developing an aid fund. We are not seeing similar initiatives in Lebanon. People rely on the private sector as the government is not helping. Should this continue, the people will abstain from paying taxes and other levies to the state. I have 38 people working in my restaurant in Lebanon, I have not laid off anyone. In Paris, I have 24, they are supposed to be paid by the company and the French state is supposed to pay us back. It is not clear yet, but basically it is the entrepreneur who will pay, which is very difficult in these conditions.”
Joumana Tadmouri has a doctorate in French literature and is a former professor at the Sorbonne, in Paris. She is also a co-founder of an international graduate school in Paris and teaches journalism. Tadmouri said that when she heard the Lebanese minister of health saying there is no need to panic while in France the authorities have taken very strict measures to deal with coronavirus, she felt that we are living in two different worlds.
“We hold our home country in our hearts and we just cannot forget it, but we feel safer in France, our host country,” she said. “Even if the French government made a mistake and decided to move on with the elections during the lockdown period, it exerted all efforts to protect its citizens. It also developed a plan covering all economic, health, human aspects to avert a health catastrophe. On the other hand, we see the Lebanese government which only recently suspended international flights carrying people from who knows where they came from, bringing who knows what. There were three contaminated countries and right from the start they should have stopped flights coming from there.
“In addition, the Lebanese government lacks the ability to provide the necessary care. Take for example the city of Tripoli and its vegetable market, where people are forced to go to work for a minimum wage of $4 a day, so they cannot stay at home. This is why we are afraid to be in Lebanon — I know how the hospitals in Lebanon treat the sick and how Lebanese public hospitals lack equipment. We cannot feel safe in a country where masks are sold at exorbitant prices and where no initiative is taken on the part of the government. I would not feel in peace in Lebanon. I am very afraid for regions such as Akkar and Tripoli, where there is only one hospital that can receive a very limited number of patients in a city where six to seven people live in a small apartment, where people are not very educated and, as much as you explain to them, they will never be able to understand the real danger. There are some who are still demanding to go to Friday prayers.
“Even if I feel safer in France, I am still at risk. France has delayed the implementation of the necessary procedures, so what can you say about Lebanon? When you also consider the refugees in Lebanon and the very densely populated regions without resources, the situation is really alarming. However, the positive news is how people in Lebanon help each other, as we have seen since October 17, when the revolution began. It is really amazing.”
Dr. Camille Tawil, a Lebanese-born general practitioner living in Paris, said: “In Lebanon the measures taken by the government reflect its possibilities and what can be done in this period of economic crisis in Lebanon. France has taken measures that are not very different from those adopted in Lebanon. Confinement is the basic measure. This virus must not spread and affect vulnerable people. I think the figures announced in Lebanon do not reflect reality because not all people are screened and there are many affected by the virus who do not declare it. In Lebanon we have 136 confirmed cases according to the ministry of health, while in France we have almost 11,000 cases with 372 deaths. Most cases tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) are in Beirut, followed by Jbeil and Keserouan, accounting for 20 percent of the cases. Personally, what scares me most are the Palestinian camps and Syrian refugees’ camps where around 1.5 million people live. If we have COVID-19 cases among them and the confinement procedures are not respected, it will be a disaster.
“As for whether I feel more secure in France than in Lebanon, I frankly cannot say. In Lebanon many are tested using invalid testing kits that give false results. In France, only people who are over 70 years of age or have Type 1 diabetes, asthma or chronic bronchitis are tested. People under 70 with symptoms such as cough, headache or fatigue are given paracetamol, or antibiotics if they have a lung infection, and are asked to stay at home and self-isolate for at least 14 days. I think the French have become very disciplined after the second speech of the president.
“I am a doctor and I am still receiving patients in my clinic. However, I have reduced the number of my consultations while taking a lot of precautions. French citizens are really complying with the lockdown, as they are very aware of the severity of this pandemic and the importance of public health to prevent vulnerable people from being affected because it would not be possible to treat everyone. There are not enough beds in intensive care or respirators to treat everyone at the same time, that is why confinement is important.
“My fellow doctors in Lebanon feel the same way. We are all abiding by the recommendations issued either by the local public health authorities or by the World Health Organization (WHO). All my colleagues and all politicians in Lebanon are urging people to stay home. In his press conference the Phalange party leader Samy Gemayel asked the government and the local authorities to force people to stay home. But alas, we all know that Lebanese are less disciplined than Europeans, it is in their genes! They will eventually understand that this is not a game, we cannot ignore the seriousness of the rapid spread of this disease.”
France-based Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz, who also has fashion houses in Beirut and London, spoke to Arab News from Beirut, where he was staying when the airport was shut down: “I could have returned to Paris but I chose to stay here with my family. I would rather be confined at home in Lebanon than in my apartment in Paris. Now I am concerned because most of the work for Rabih Kayrouz, which is a French brand, is in Paris. In Beirut, we have a sewing workshop for the orders and a shop. We employ 15 people in Beirut, 30 in Paris and three people in London in the branch we just opened. But I chose to stay in Lebanon.
“The French government has taken measures to help companies, which does not surprise me. In Lebanon it is entirely our responsibility, which is a cause of concern because we have 50 people to provide for, and I have been facing this problem in Beirut since Oct. 17, 2019 when the revolt started. All activities have been stopped now due to the lockdown.”
Kamal Mouzzawak is the founder of Souk El-Tayeb in Lebanon, a farmers’ market that supports small village producers by bringing their produce to urban areas where the demand and purchasing power is higher.
“In 2007 we went to different regions and celebrated local specialties such as cherries in Hamana or Kebbé in Ehden during a special Food and Feast day with typical dishes from villages. We then had the idea to do the same in Beirut and we created ‘Tawleh’ in 2009 in Mar Mikhael. Later, we expanded the Tawleh concept in all regions showcasing the Lebanese dishes.
“Economic activity has been at its lowest since October 17, so we travelled abroad, once or twice a month. We should be in Marseille on April 13, and at a big event in Barcelona, Washington and other places. We made a lot of changes to our establishments in Lebanon and we were planning to elaborate on that in a Tawleh in London.
“With the coronavirus problem, events started to be canceled and now everything has stopped and everyone is confined. I do not feel safer in Europe than in Lebanon. Even if people are undisciplined in Lebanon, I can always discipline myself, I have been in Douma for two weeks in self-isolation.
“In Paris, even though the people were asked to confine themselves from Sunday morning everybody was out on Saturday evening, which is irresponsible. It is impressive that in Lebanon the people started the lockdown, not of the government as in all other countries.”
Norma Khoury, who lives in France, thinks of carers in France and their courage. She told Arab News: “In Lebanon we do not have the same means or equipment as France, and even in France they lack materials and beds due to the big pressure on public hospital budgets.
“I do not trust the ability of hospitals in Lebanon to treat the people. The population in Lebanon moves around and is less disciplined. I would rather be here, where I feel more confident, than in Lebanon.”
Marwan Choucair, a young Lebanese entrepreneur based in Antibes, in southern France, was about to create a Lebanese Food Truck, a mobile restaurant. He said: “In Lebanon, we have family members and friends with whom we can talk but in France we feel that the situation is more controlled. We have a state which has a strategy to fight the coronavirus, therefore from a health protection perspective in France things are surely better handled than in Lebanon.”