In rural France, the coronavirus bolstered a sense of community and isolation

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France has recorded more than 26,000 deaths related to the coronavirus outbreak

But the district of Lozère has reported only one death

Communities that previously lamented their isolation have found that it has helped spare them from the worst of the outbreak

(Photos by Emilienne Malfatto for The Washington Post)

In December 2018, a handful of “yellow vest” protesters walked 482 miles from Lozère, a district in southern France, to the presidential palace in Paris. They collected grievances from people they met along the way: people who felt isolated, forgotten by the government, socially and economically disconnected from the French capital.

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, isolation has become a means of survival, and the people of Lozère have found themselves at something of an advantage. As of Friday, only 20 people in the district had been found to have had the coronavirus, with just two of them hospitalized. Lozère is the only district in metropolitan France to count just one coronavirus death.

With just 75,000 inhabitants, Lozère is the least populated departmental district in France.

The local economy relies mostly on farming and logging.

These industries have failed to keep young people from moving away.

Population numbers have been slowly falling, adding to the sense of isolation.

“Isolated like we are here, it’s a little bit like we’re permanently confined,” said Elisabeth Piéjoujac, from Villeret, a village with just a dozen inhabitants in the winter.

Not much has changed in the village in light of the pandemic. People wash their hands more often. They stopped kissing their neighbors and the friends they meet on Saturdays at the market in Langogne, 10 miles away.

A woman walks to the market in Langogne. The village has continued its weekly market during France’s lockdown.

For many villagers, this market is the only place where they can stock up on food.

That is one of the reasons it was allowed to continue to operate, despite national restrictions.

In some ways, the pandemic has exposed the strengths of what is called “la France périphérique,” or peripheral France, the same type of places that rose up during the “yellow vest” protests in 2018.

People in Lozère and other peripheral areas of France say the pandemic has brought out a sense of communal solidarity — more so, perhaps, than one might feel in Paris.

“People are supporting each other,” said novelist Nicolas Mathieu, who wrote about the forgotten corners of France in his 2018 novel, “And Their Children After Them.” He has spent the lockdown in a house in Nancy, a midsize city in eastern France. “Between neighbors, asking if they need anything, etc. I’m sure that exists in Paris, as well. But the other day, while doing errands, I found something on the ground in front of the cashier’s station. It was a little note, and it read, ‘Thank you for doing this for the building,’ and clearly someone had indeed done all the shopping for an entire building. That says it all.”

Despite the small number of coronavirus cases in the area, police still enforce the strict nationwide confinement order.

“Above everything else, it’s about getting in contact with people and, in some cases, giving a lesson to those who don’t respect the governmental measures,” said Maj. Christophe Gerard, who supervises 16 officers in Langogne.

Gerard’s officers haven’t issued many fines since the start of the lockdown. “Here, there’s a culture of respecting the rules,” he said.

That’s not to say that the complaints about inequality have been resolved or forgotten. France this week has begun to reopen schools, as it relaxes its coronavirus lockdown. But the two months at home have been especially hard for some students in peripheral France. Salomé Berlioux, author of “Invisibles of the Republic,” said nearly 7 out of every 10 families she has interviewed reported difficulties in establishing an online connection for their children to follow school lessons remotely. Nationally, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told Le Parisien newspaper that only about 5 percent of families would have difficulty following courses online.

“In peripheral France, we are very far from national statistics,” Berlioux said.

And when the virus has emerged in rural areas, local health systems, with their limited resources, can quickly feel the strain.

Still, Berlioux said, the coronavirus crisis “is mostly a crisis of metropolitan centers. The real violence is in the big cities and the sensitive neighborhoods there.”

The church in Saint-Jean-la-Fouillouse has remained closed during the pandemic.

Even before the crisis, the sacristy was empty. The church has not had a permanent priest in 30 years.

Many local families have plots in the church’s cemetery.

Upkeep has continued even during the pandemic.

Niels Planel, a poverty reduction consultant, is in confinement in Semur-en-Auxois, a town of about 4,000 people in Burgundy — one of the most vocal regions during the yellow vest uprising in 2018.

“The good thing, for example, in my district — which has 345 villages and towns, and two or three bigger cities — is that people know each other,” Planel said. “Even if you don’t have the administrative information as to how someone may be living, you actually know who’s doing well and who is not.”

“For instance, I knew a young kid who I knew would not be able to generate revenue anymore, and I knew where he lived, so I called him. He said he was fine, that he needed food soon, and I was able to connect him to the social center,” he said.

“This is stronger than you would see in a place like Paris.”

Goats head for their barn after spending a day in the fields near Florensac.

Céline and Sébastien Dole are goat farmers. Despite the pandemic, they remain as active as before.

They cannot put the goats on pause, they said.

This is a telluric reality: This work can’t stop; it is constrained by immutable cycles.

Photographer Emilienne Malfatto has felt that sense community during her confinement in Lozère. Her mother is from the region, and that’s where the ultra-local means something, she said. “You are from the country or you’re not.”

“Several times during this reportage, as I explained my local origins, faces lit up. ‘I knew your grandmother.’ And, suddenly, I wasn’t a foreigner anymore and doors opened.”

As France slowly reopens this week and in coming months, little will change for the people in Lozère. Yet, the way it is perceived by outsiders might evolve, and that sense of isolation and community, dismissed before the pandemic, might suddenly be more attractive to some.

In the weeks to come, as confinement orders are lifted, nothing will really change in the Lozère. “It will still be about the great outdoors,” Malfatto said.

James McAuley

James McAuley is Paris correspondent for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in French history from the University of Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

About this story

Photography by Emilienne Malfatto for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena.